This month marks the 100th anniversary of the nation’s entry into World War I, a conflict that would reshape the world political map and begin changing the roles of women and black people in American society.
More than 60,000 Kentuckians saw military service in what was then called “the war to end all wars,” including 11,320 black men.
Government policies relegated many black Kentucky soldiers to menial roles, and racist politicians forced the retirement of the highest ranking of the Army’s handful of black officers, Col. Charles Young, who was born in Mason County.
But many black Kentuckians were in the thick of the fight. Some served with an all-black unit that was one of the longest-serving and most-decorated combat units of the war, 369th Infantry Regiment, formerly the 15th New York, whose first black officer was born in Lexington.
Because white American soldiers refused to fight with them, the men of the 369th were attached to the French army. They had French helmets, weapons and accoutrements, but still wore American uniforms.
French soldiers treated them much better than white American soldiers did, calling them the “Men of Bronze.”
The Germans across the trenches gave the men of the 369th a more colorful name — The Harlem Hellfighters — because they never gave up ground on the battlefield or lost a man to capture.
As in the Civil War, the U.S. government allowed blacks to fight only when they became desperate for manpower. Knowing that might be the case, the New York National Guard began preparing the 15th New York National Guard Regiment.
The first black candidate to pass the officer’s examination and become a first lieutenant in the 15th New York was Vertner Woodson Tandy, who was born in Lexington to masonry contractor Henry Tandy, who helped build many local buildings, including the old Fayette County Courthouse now under renovation.
Tandy’s boyhood home still stands on West Main Street, along with a state historical marker honoring him.
Tandy graduated from Cornell University, where he was one of the “seven jewels” who founded Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. He became New York state’s first black registered architect and was well on his way to a prominent architectural career in Harlem when he joined the National Guard and headed the unit’s recruiting station.
As a captain, Tandy commanded the regiment’s A Company. A few months before America entered the war, he was promoted to major and put in charge of the depot battalion, a job that apparently kept him in New York when what became the 369th was sent to France in the spring of 1918.
The 369th was led mostly by white officers. Serving under French command, the unit fought in the Second Battle of the Marne, the last major German offensive on the Western Front in the fall of 1918, and in the Battle of the Argonne Forest, which lasted until the war ended Nov. 11. The Harlem Hellfighters’ six-month deployment was the longest of any American unit in the war.
Two members of the 369th received the Medal of Honor, and several more the Distinguished Service Cross. The French government gave 171 of its members either the Legion of Honor or the Croix de Guerre.
Yvonne Giles, an avid researcher of Lexington’s black history, has identified 22 men from Lexington who served with the 369th overseas between August 1918 and February 1919, when they returned home to a parade in New York City.
One of them, Clarence B. Espy, enlisted at age 25 in Lexington on May 21, 1918. He was first assigned to the 801st Pioneer Infantry, an all-black unit. He transferred to the 369th on Oct. 30, 1918 and was discharged in March 1919.
Giles’ research discovered that Espy was a brick mason at the time of his enlistment. After the war, he worked for Eubank Lumber Co. in Lexington. He married, but had no children. He is buried in African Cemetery No. 2 on East Seventh Street.
Other Lexington men Giles has identified as serving with the 369th during World War I include: George Ballard, Oliver Blythe, Dudley Clayburn, Louis Dawson, Edward Emby, William Graves, Lewis Gray, James Hicks, John Jackson, Frank Johnson, Omer Johnson, Russell Johnson, Row Kindrick, James Lyes, Newton Mitchell, Thomas Price, Isaac Thompson, Lewis Tilford, Theolus G. Turner, Carl Vandivier and Eugene Webster.
Another Kentuckian who served with the Harlem Hellfighters was John Ray Carter, the only black soldier from Anderson County to die in World War I.