on 'the color question' and paris (5/9)

When Colonel J.L.A Linard composed a statement for French counsels in 1918, he hadn’t exactly expected support from the black community.

The whole purpose of the Great War, he claimed, was to keep the population from “spoiling” black citizens, to keep them from coming in contact with the French, who he feared would empower them to their own individuality. “But we French are not in our province if we undertake to discuss what some people call ‘prejudice’,” Linard wrote. “American opinion is unanimous on the ‘color question’ and does not admit of any discussion.”

It was as a result of this discussion, however, that only a few years prior, a bill authorizing an African-American National Guard regiment was signed into law by New York Governor William Sulzer, creating the 15th New York Regiment — better known as the “Harlem Hellfighters”.

And for James Reese Europe and Noble Sissle, a couple of orchestra musicians from Harlem, it was a no-brainer. If they were ever going to be equal to white folk, they thought, then the war was the time to prove it.

Yet when his commanding officer asked Europe to put together an official band for the regiment, it may have been an even easier decision. And thus, with $10,000 in funding from large corporations such as U.S. Steel and American Can Company, Europe was able to put together an astoundingly large forty-four piece band.

It came to be the most successful band not only in the U.S. Army, but in the history of the American military.

“The music poured in at their ears and ran down their heels,” journalist Irvin S. Cobb wrote, “and instead of marching they literally danced their way along….Certainly it is the best [band] I have heard in Europe during the war.”

As much as the music had insulated them, however, the horrors of the war were inevitable for the Hellfighters. They remained segregated from white soldiers. They received no resources from support groups. They faced unfathomable horrors, including the infamous Henry Johnson single defeating a German raid with nothing more than a bolo knife.

And Europe wasn’t immune. In the summer of 1918, Europe found himself under heavy machine gun fire from German troops, leading him to inhale large amounts of poison gas — and sending him straight to the field hospital.

When Sissle went to visit his old friend, however, it was nothing but energy. It was nothing but music:

“...instead of him telling us how seriously he was gassed, as we had expected, or how his physical condition was, the first thing that he spoke up and said was: ‘Gee, I am glad to see you boys! Sissle, here’s a wonderful idea for a song that just came to me, in fact, it was [from the] experience that I had last night during the bombardment that nearly knocked me out.’”

The song that Europe composed – “On Patrol In No Man’s Land” – was an instant hit, playing not only to over 50,000 listeners in France, but an additional audience in the States, both impressed by the efforts Europe was making overseas. On the Hellfighters’ return home from France, they were greeted in Harlem with a sprawling parade, supported by not only Black Americans, but White Americans as well, impressed with the “diplomacy” of Europe’s music. “[They] practically owned the city,” as one reporter commented.

“We won France by playing music which was ours and not a pale imitation of others,” Europe stated on his return, “and if we are to develop in America we must develop along our own lines.”

“A racial musical characteristic” of the time, Europe and his band were met with praise wherever they traveled, a testament not only of the growing jazz and Renaissance movement in Harlem, but of battles they spent on both the racial and battle fronts.

The music, beginning with “On Patrol”, became immensely popular in the States, and suddenly became sympathetic to the cause of “spoiling” African-Americans, as Linard put it.

In a time when black Americans felt more safe in foreign countries than in their own neighborhoods, it was Europe who provided solace, not through his words, but through his music. Europe was the “living open sesame” to the Black communities across the country, raising them from labor jobs to their true potential as musicians, as activists, as storytellers.

It’s not to say that Europe was the “savior” of his times. It would take tens of years, thousands of dollars, and millions of lives to cement the legacy that Europe laid for his community, the legacy that remains buried under modern prejudice. But even if they hadn’t made the progress they wanted, the small steps, as Zeno would say, had been taken, the groundwork laid for a generation of citizens, of storytellers, of champions to come.

“We had conquered Paris.”