SARATOGA SPRINGS — The New York State Military Museum revealed the contents of a Harlem Armory time capsule.
The capsule had been hidden in the cornerstone of the armory built for Henry Johnson’s regiment. It was discovered in February when a granite plaque labeled 1922 was being replaced on the Harlem Armory cornerstone. A contractor found a previously unknown tin box sealed inside the stone.
“We really had no idea what to expect,” said Courtney Burns, director of the New York State Military Museum in Saratoga Springs. “We had no idea this box even existed until it was pulled out in February. We brought it back here to the museum and tried to gently open it as best we could without damaging anything that may have been inside.”
The time capsule contained dozens of documents, newspaper clippings, a movie program and photographs from the early 1920s highlighting the Harlem Armory and the service of the Harlem Hell Fighters during World War I. Harlem Hell Fighters was the nickname adopted by the 369th Infantry.
The tin box and its contents were brought to the New York State Military Museum in May and were publicly shown and discussed Thursday.
“The stuff they selected is not random,” Burns said. “As much as it’s meant to demonstrate their pride, the community pride, it’s a celebration of their accomplishments. It really is as much about African American history, Harlem’s history, as it is about the unit’s history. The unit really embodied the community and the aspirations that they had and what the service of the African American soldiers meant.”
Time Capsule Unveiling (11 photos)
The time capsule included documents from the company who built the armory, a program from the 1920 movie “Hell Fighter,” an essay about the 369th Infantry before and after the war, a journal, “The National Review — A journal Devoted to the Progress and Development of the Colored People,” from 1922 and five issues of “New York Age,” a prominent New York City newspaper. The five issues have front page headlines about the 369th Infantry as well as and many other items.
“Harlem was a focus of the cultural and intellectual center of the African American community,” Burns said. “And having a unit formed there was significant because it brought together a lot of those people who could volunteer their services to the country to demonstrate their value as citizens in a country that really wasn’t affording them that same equality that the rest of the nation had.”
The unit was one of the first in the country to recruit to full strength, Burns said. He said people came from all across New York state to join as well as from other states like New Jersey, Virginia and Pennsylvania.
The Hell Fighters were the unit in which Medal of Honor recipient Henry Johnson of Albany served during World War I.
Building the Harlem Armory “was a significant recognition of their accomplishments,” Burns said.
Originally the Hell Fighters were the 15th Infantry of the New York National Guard. The unit was composed of Black soldiers and commanded by mainly white officers. They fought as part of a French division.
The regiment was renumbered as the 369th U.S. Infantry and spent 191 days in combat and never retreated. The regiment received a total of 170 French Croix de Guerre awards for heroism.
“When you get into the individual items, it’s really a celebration of the 369th, yes the Harlem Hell Fighters and for what they had done and providing them that home,” Col. Richard Goldenberg with the New York National Guard public affairs office said. “But what you really get a sense of, is it is a celebration of African American importance in Harlem, in the city of New York, for what they had done over the past few years. And a celebration of that community preserved for 100 years.”
The unit was celebrated when it came home from war, Burns said. He explained they had one of the largest parades New York had ever seen in 1919.
“Then in 1920 they began petitioning for a new armory to be built,” Burns said. “To have a home base that they would be permanent at and it was finally authorized and there was money that was allocated for that from the city and the state.”
Construction on the armory began in 1922 Burns said. In 1923 the ceremony celebrating the armory had over 5,000 people in attendance. He said there are reports from newspapers at the time about the celebration event, but none of them mention the time capsule.