Stepchild Regiment: Harlem’s Rattlers and the Struggle for Existence and Recognition in the New York National Guard

Photo from MALKIN LECTURE: Stepchild Regiment on August 26, 2014

November 18, 2014

The campaign to establish New York State’s first black National Guard regiment emanates from the belief that martial institutions are an instrument of full and equal citizenship. New York, far from progressive on matters of race, refused to recognize black militias in the Civil War and witnessed the deadly and destructive Draft Riots of 1863, targeting helpless and innocent black citizens, their homes, businesses, and institutions. With no recognition in the Spanish-American War, black New Yorkers, buoyed by their growing numbers as well as economic and political influence, determined to organize an institution dedicated to that end. Under pressure, the State recognized the mostly African-American Fifteenth New York National Guard in 1916. The Fifteenth Regiment, Harlem’s “Rattlers,” went on to fight in France in 1917 and 1918, but their experience in training and combat differed sharply from that of the other two Upper East Side regiments, the Seventh Regiment and Squadron A. In the end, the Harlem Rattlers became one of the most decorated United States units in World War I.

Jeffrey Sammons is a professor of history at New York University, where he has taught since 1989. He is a graduate of Rutgers College and earned his masters degree in history from Tufts University followed by his Ph.D. in American History at the University of North Carolina. From there, he accepted a position as Assistant Professor of History at the University of Houston and in 1983 – 84 was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Cape Town. In 1987, Sammons was named Henry Rutgers Research Fellow at Rutgers University-Camden and completed his critically acclaimed Beyond the Ring: The Role of Boxing in American Society. In 2001 he was awarded a fellowship by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and soon after received a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship for 2002 – 2003 in support of Harlem’s Rattlers and the Great War which was published in April 2014 by the University Press of Kansas.

Photo: US National Archives


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