When the Blues People Sang America to France

Jackie Sheppard

It had the start of a good day when on 16 March, twenty-four members and four guests met at Le Relais d’Orgement for the illustrated talk by Curtis Young. A laureate of the Châteaubriand Fellowship in Humanities and Social Sciences and a professor of American Literature at ESSEC, Curtis had travelled from Paris to speak to us.

We learnt about the epic role played by African-American soldiers during World War I. This is a story not told in American history books, or found in French text books. Due to segregation, African-American soldiers were forbidden from playing a combat role alongside white Americans and instead were organised into manual labour gangs to unload ships, build docks and retrieve and bury the dead.

Some two hundred members of the 369th Infantry Regiment National Guard from Harlem were the first American troops to land in France in April 1917 along with their renowned regimental jazz bandleader, James Reese Europe. When the unit arrived in Brest in April 1917 he immediately lined up members of his orchestra on the pier and played the Marseillaise in rag-time. The people of France had endured four years of war and the music they heard that day was totally new and uplifting to them. Such was the reception their music received that the orchestra toured France playing for soldiers and public alike.

Eventually, through an agreement with General Pershing, these soldiers were ‘loaned’ to the 16th Division of the 4th French Army, under the command of French General Henri Gouraud. As a result they were trained by the French, wore French helmets and carried French arms. By the end of the war they had been in combat one hundred and ninety one days, longer than any other American forces. The entire unit won France’s highest award, the Croix de Guerre and one soldier among them, Private Henry Johnson, was the first individual American soldier so honoured. In addition one hundred and seventy one of these soldiers won the coveted Legion d’honneur.

We were all eager to hear more on the subject and it was with reluctance that the presentation actually stopped for lunch. Over coffee, however, Curtis continued to answer the many questions put to him and it was very late in the afternoon by the time the meeting broke up and we headed home. That promise of a good day certainly turned out to be true – our speaker was entertaining, witty and extremely informative. We look forward to meeting him again.

Very many thanks to Curtis Young for coming to tell us about this amazing piece of history and thank you to the committee for inviting him.