General Nathaniel James, 79, Dedicates Life to Raising Profile of WWI Heroes, The Harlem Hellfighters

Maj. Gen. Nathaniel James in front of a mural dedicated to the 369th Regiment. To General James, who joined the New York Army National Guard at 17, his most important job has been promoting the Harlem Hellfighters. (OZIER MUHAMMAD / THE NEW YORK TIMES)

By the beginning of September, the corner office on the second floor of the 369th Regiment Armory in Harlem was nearly empty. Squares of dust outlined where framed pictures once hung. Only a desk remained, with Maj. Gen. Nathaniel James, 79, sitting behind it.

General James has considered the armory at 142nd Street and Fifth Avenue his second home for more than 60 years.  Before he retired, his military career in the New York Army National Guard had spanned from private, corporal, second lieutenant, first lieutenant, major and lieutenant colonel. To him, though, his most important job had been as president of the Harlem Hellfighters Historical Society.

Now, the armory, built in 1933, is being closed for renovations. Its occupants have had to find temporary space elsewhere. General James and everything belonging to the historical society had to be out by Wednesday.

In 1959, General James learned about a room in the armory where artifacts of the Harlem Hellfighters — a black unit that fought under French command in World War I — were gathering dust. He put the items on display every New Year’s Day for a few hours.

“We cleaned everything and had an open house for everybody in the unit,” he said.  “When I joined there was no written history,” said General James, who joined the New York Army National Guard when he was 17.

General James’s family moved north in 1939, fleeing racism in Branchville, S.C., where he was born.  “My family moved to Harlem and we’ve never left,” General James said. He married and had four children, who called him General instead of Dad.

“We got up in the mornings to work out with him, and we made sure we got up early enough to get to school on time,” said one of his sons, Nathaniel James Jr., 52. “O dark thirty is O dark thirty, no exceptions,” he added.

General James decided that the Hellfighters artifacts should be more widely seen, and the history of black soldiers should be more widely known, after watching a biographical movie about Gen. George S. Patton, which, he noticed, made no mention of a black unit that he knew had been under Patton’s command.

And his children, he said, were noticing gaps in what they were taught at school. “They started seeing history wasn’t proper,” he said.

Mr. James remembers looking in his history books for the stories of the black soldiers his father had told him about. He could not find much.  “I asked my teacher about it, and she said the only history they have is about the Buffalo Soldiers,” he said.

Members of the James family decided to take matters into their own hands.  General James’s sons held parties in the mess hall and in the auditorium of the armory, taking donations. The general’s wife, Mary, and his daughter, Rosalyn, organized dinners, fashion shows and Mother’s Day events.  “We used to D.J. when they had parties here,” said Courtney Dixon, 52, a neighbor.

Eventually the historical society, which General James said has about 1,500 members and is run by volunteers, raised enough money to display the artifacts in large cases and frames around the armory.

Mr. Dixon has been helping to move the cases to the historical society’s new office at Second Avenue and 123rd Street.  That space, in a neighborhood busier than the armory’s old one, is significantly smaller than General James’s former quarters. Boxes are stacked high against the wall. Scaffolding blocks most of the large window. General James will share the office with the 369th Veterans Association, but association members, he said, “only come around about once a month.”

Most of the artifacts General James had collected for the historical society about the Hellfighters had been put in storage.

The State Division of Military and Naval Affairs inventoried the historical society’s collection and stored the items most closely tied to the 369th Regiment. The division plans to install a “museum grade” exhibition in the armory when the renovations are complete, a spokesman, Eric Durr, said.

Col. Gregory Collins, executive director of the mentoring group Harlem Youth Marines, which was also housed in the armory, made room for the historical society at its new location.

“Once we got this space, I brought them aboard with us,” Colonel Collins said. “I wanted to keep us all together.”  The veterans involved with the historical society mentor the cadets.  “We learn from each other,” Colonel Collins said.

article by Sandra E. Garcia via nytimes.com

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