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The Surprising Way African-American Soldiers Were Recruited for World War I

3 minute read

When the new PBS documentary series The Great War arrives this April to mark the 100-year anniversary of the U.S. entry into World War I on April 6, 1917, it will aim to tell the story of the American experience of the war, from the biggest moments to more obscure slices of history.

One of those slices is seen here, in the first exclusive clip released from the film, and it’s a fitting reminder as Black History Month comes to a close of the obstacles faced and achievements recorded by African-Americans during that pivotal period of American history.

As the U.S. prepared to join in on a conflict that had previously been confined largely to the other side of the world, leaders within the African-American community in Harlem petitioned for the U.S. military to start a new regiment within the segregated armed forces so that black Americans could prove their strength and love of country just like their white fellow citizens could. The result was the African-American 15th National Guard — with the caveat that the unit had to raise its own money for equipment and serve under the command of a white officer.

Despite the conditions placed on the 15th National Guard (later re-designated the 369th Infantry Regiment, known as the “Harlem Hellfighters”), some of the biggest names around signed up, like bandleader James Reese Europe, who would help form the regimental band for the unit.

And, after the declaration of war came, the group saw record recruits — thanks in part to the unconventional recruiting technique seen in this clip, using music to draw young men to the recruiting office.

TIME revisited the story in 1941, when the coming of World War II made the military band newly relevant:

Bandmaster of the 369th for more than four years has been Russell Wooding, onetime Broadway arranger and conductor, onetime bandmaster for the New York Giants football team. Bandmaster Wooding works his men hard, says: “All of us realize that we have a great tradition to uphold.” That tradition was begun in World War I, when the 369th was the crack 15th New York Infantry and its bandmaster was the late James Reese Europe.

In the early 1900s, when Northern popular musicians played only potted-palm tunes, big, black, Alabama-born Jim Europe held Negro jam sessions in a cafe in West 53rd Street. White folks dropped in, hired so many of Europe’s friends to play “gigs” — single party dates — that Jim opened a booking office. He formed a Clef Club of Negro jazzmen, gave a concert in Carnegie Hall in 1911. He (at the piano) and his boys played for Vernon and Irene Castle. Once he excited the Castles’ curiosity by playing Memphis Blues too slow for their brisk one-step. That, said Jim Europe and his friends, was how the fox trot started.

In 1917 Jim Europe and his manager, Noble Sissle (Shuffle Along), joined the 15th Regiment. The colonel made Europe band leader, raised $10,000 for instruments — 30 reeds, a dozen or so brasses, two bull fiddles (for concerts). Leader Europe became a lieutenant, Sissle his drum major and top sergeant. The two of them were soon putting riffs in conventional marches, had the band blare blues to a fare-thee-well. When the 15th reached France, Europe’s band was detailed to play for U. S. soldiers just back from the front lines.

The three-part series The Great War premieres on April 10.

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Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com