When Lawrence Leslie McVey was beaten to death in a New York City park in 1968, few had a clue about the critical role he and his all-black regiment, the Harlem Hellfighters, played in liberating France from the Germans in World War I.
Forbidden to fight alongside white U.S. soldiers, the Hellfighters were assigned to the French Army. They were the first Allied troops of the war to reach the banks of the Rhine, according to the Smithsonian Institution. They spent 191 days in combat, longer than any other American regiment.
The French government recognized McVey and his fellow troops with the Croix de Guerre, a medal for acts of bravery in conflict.
Now the United States is honoring them as well. Thanks to his granddaughter, Gina McVey of Elk Grove, McVey’s Croix de Guerre and other war memorabilia is enshrined in the newly opened National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., part of the Smithsonian.
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In September, Gina McVey attended the grand opening of the museum with 20 of her closest friends.
“I’m so very proud of him; I feel the blood of an American patriot running through my veins,” said Gina McVey, a Wells Fargo risk management expert. She personally delivered her late grandfather’s medals and letters to museum Director Lonnie Bunch. “I wanted to share this with the world. It’s a history that needs to be told so everyone understands their courage and sacrifice.”
McVey, 58, choked up when she spoke of her grandfather, who grew up on a farm in Texas. He moved to Harlem at age 18 and joined the Army’s all-black 369th Regiment. “The French had been at war for a couple of years and reached out to General John J. Pershing for help,” she said. “Pershing said, ‘I’ll send you the colored soldiers. They’re not real smart. Be careful with them around your women.’ ”
They earned the nickname “Harlem Hellfighters” because of their fierce fighting, and because most were from Harlem.
They were also called the Black Rattlers, and had a rattler sewn on the shoulder of their French uniforms. “These are people who would defend themselves if they were tread upon,” said Bunch, the museum’s first director.
“To be able to tell the story of the black soldier in World War I through her grandfather was like manna from heaven,” Bunch added. “I did a documentary about 10 years ago on black soldiers in World War I, but I had not seen a real Croix de Guerre, and to have it in front of me was unbelievably moving and personal.”
Corporal Lawrence McVey and others in his regiment were awarded medals for taking the outpost of Sechault, a tiny village in Champagne. A citation accompanying McVey’s medal said “he displayed great courage by leading his squad to the attack of a nest of machine guns until he was wounded.”
The allies won that battle. McVey was shot in the arm, but he wasn’t awarded the U.S. Purple Heart medal for being injured in combat until 1932. “The U.S. didn’t give purple hearts to black soldiers,” said his granddaughter. McVey also won an Inter-Allied Victory medal and several other commendations.
Like other black veterans who returned to Jim Crow America, he had a tough time after the war.
The Harlem Hellfighters were not allowed to take part in the allied victory parade in Paris or the ticker tape parade for white soldiers in New York, Gina McVey said.
They had their own victory parade through Harlem on Feb. 12, 1919. McVey’s picture made the front page of the New York Herald.
Among the items McVey delivered to the Smithsonian: A postcard with a picture of her grandfather in uniform, with “Hero” written on top by his wife. McVey said the postcard meant as much to her as the Croix de Guerre.
Bunch placed the postcard in the “Double V” section of the museum, representing victory in war and also against racism. “Here is somebody who went overseas and risked his life, and at least his family knew he was a hero,” Bunch said.
The initial idea behind sending African American soldiers was that they would perform service jobs such as cooking, digging ditches and burying the dead, Bunch said. But the French quickly learned their value as front-line warriors.
“They proved to be so good they gave lie to the notion that they weren’t equal,” Bunch said.
Despite his medals, McVey could find work only in his brother’s barbershop in Harlem until he eventually landed a job on the Pennsylvania Railroad, his granddaughter said.
Cpl. McVey was living with his two sisters when he was beaten to death in a park in New York and died Sept. 13, 1968, said Gina McVey, who was 10 years old at the time. “He was beaten so bad they had a hard time identifying him. He was only 71 years old.”
His journey to the Smithsonian began at a Mercedes dealership in El Dorado Hills in 2010, where Gina McVey met a white war veteran in his army uniform. “I thanked him for his service and mentioned my grandfather had won a medal in World War I,” she said. “He said, ‘The Croix de Guerre? Do you know what you have? You have history!’”
So McVey visited her mother in Los Angeles. “I open his medal box, and there’s the Croix de Guerre, and tears roll down my face,” she said. “And then there’s another medal container with his Purple Heart. I learned the Harlem Hellfighters were the longest serving and most decorated U.S. military unit in World War I. When the French Army crossed the Rhine River they said, ‘We want you to go first,’ because they were such fierce fighters.”
McVey sent a note to the Smithsonian in January when she heard the new museum was going to open. They asked her to send the medals, but instead she flew out at her own expense and brought her grandfather’s other memorabilia as well. When McVey toured the exhibit last month, she said, she felt like her heart stopped, seeing him finally acknowledged.
She said found the museum overwhelming, from the shackles used to restrain a small black child to the invitation to President Barack Obama’s inauguration. “You see people crying at the exhibits – black, white, red and yellow,” she said.
At her Elk Grove home, she still has pictures of her grandfather, one of them in a tuxedo, along with a 1915 German Mauser rifle he brought home from the war and the American flag that was placed on his casket. McVey is trying to get her grandfather reburied in Arlington National Cemetery.