World War I posed a problem for white America. Blacks wanted to demonstrate their patriotism by joining the war effort. Participation in the growing American industrial sector was not enough for some blacks; they wanted to fight. The problem became how can black Americans be allowed to serve in the military. Would they serve alongside whites? Prior to WWI, blacks did not enlist for combat in the same ways as whites. Military leaders discovered a solution that mirrored American social culture: blacks would be able to serve in segregated regiments.
The Young Captain
As a wealthy and well-connected man, Fish easily reached the higher echelons of the military leadership. When applying for a captaincy, however, Fish faced a prejudicial older major who thought he was too young for the position. Despite doing well on his examinations and drills, the major failed to give him the post. Fish returned home to Manhattan disgusted and ran into Colonel William Hayward. Hayward said to Fish, “Ham, if you want to be a captain, I’ll make you one on the spot." Looking for help in commanding a Negro regiment, Hayward immediately saw past Fish’s youth and inexperience and recruited him to be a captain of the Harlem Hellfighters, the New York Fifteenth regiment.
Recruiting for the Harlem Hellfighters occurred in the streets of Harlem itself. Fish did travel though, as far as Dutchess, Putnam, and Orange counties looking for men to serve. The Hellfighters were drawn in with promises of the opportunity to become officers in the US Army. The only requirements were that men had to be responsible, healthy, weigh at least 125 pounds and measure no less than five feet four inches tall. Fish urged men, “Don’t wait to be drafted. It is no honor in being made to go, so volunteer now and send your name and address to me at once and I will arrange for your examination.” Facing difficult conditions in the North due to racist beliefs, many African-Americans joined up with Fish in hopes of securing a better life for themselves and their families. Why did Fish volunteer so quickly to work with the Harlem Hellfighters? How was Fish similar to the African-Americans he was trying to recruit?
“Despite my appeal to Roosevelt,” Fish later wrote, “our orders remained unchanged, and we went to Spartansburg for twelve tension-filled days.”
The Harlem Hellfighters seemed destined to see trouble in Spartansburg. Fish’s forebodings came to fruition when on the regiment’s first night there, four black and four white soldiers walked together down main street. Whites out in the streets were quick to hurl racial insults at the soldiers. The white soldiers quickly jumped to the defense of their fellow compatriots leading to a fight. The police broke up the altercation shortly thereafter, but the racial tension became palpable.
Fish and the other military leaders quickly organized a meeting with the soldiers. They tried to explain the fact that Southerners did not appreciate all they were doing for the country; they still only saw black and white. Fish urged soldiers to show their morality by ignoring the prejudice and act with quiet restraint instead. In a discussion with the Mayor, Fish stated, “I told them that if any of the town’s citizens sought by force to interfere with the rights of the black troops under my command, I would demand that swift legal action be taken against the perpetrator. This quieted things down temporarily, but it was a nervous quiet.”
Fish wrote to his father in October 1917, “The situation between our soldiers and the poor whites of Spartanburg has been most critical since we arrived, owing to the treatment our men received. Several serious race riots have just been prevented in the nick of time and all of us knew that it was only a question of time before our men would retaliate and shoot up or burn up the town. The War Dept. realizing the menacing situation ordered us to embark Sat. for Europe.” What difficulties did Fish and his men face in Spartanburg? How might Fish attempt to resolve these difficulties?