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Minnesota National Guard
Lt. James Reese Europe: Black American, Citizen-Soldier, American Hero

Black Americans have contributed much to both American culture and American security One truly remarkable Black American and National Guard Soldier who embodied the essence of both these contributions is 1st Lt James Reese Europe of the 369th Infantry "Harlem Hellfighters"

Europe was born Feb 22, 1881 in Mobile, Ala From the time he was born, he was immersed in music, as both his parents were musicians At age 10, his family moved to Washington, DC where he studied violin under the direction of Assistant Marine Corps Director Enrico Hurlei

He continued to pursue musical greatness " writing scores, directing orchestras and eventually evolving his music into the ragtime and jazz music revolution that was taking place shortly after the turn of the 19th century

The most famous of the orchestras he directed was the Clef Club The Clef Club was one of the most unusual African-American organizations of the time because it was part fraternal organization and part union

The Clef Club Orchestra appeared at Carnegie Hall for the first time May 2, 1912 They were the first jazz band to ever play Carnegie Hall They were so well received that they returned in 1913 and 1914 One American writer said that popular music first invaded the concert auditorium when Europe played Carnegie Hall

During his time as the orchestra director, Europe pacified White audiences who couldn't accept that Black musicians could actually read music He acquired the newest music quickly and then led his orchestra to learn every note on every page When appearing in front of White audiences, the Clef Club played with no music in front of them While this played to the audiences' false sense of superiority, it simultaneously gave deserving Black musicians the exposure that landed them more jobs

Jim Europe met Vernon and Irene Castle at a private society party where the Clef Club Orchestra was playing The Castles were a popular dance couple at the time, because the nation perceived them as bringing an element of class to the scene of ragtime music dancing After meeting Europe, the Castles decided to make him their band leader They also hired fellow black composer Ford Dabney as their musical arranger While with the Castles, Europe was instrumental in the premier and success of their most famous dance creation, the fox trot

Europe embodied the spirit of the Citizen-Solder during World War I, when he enlisted as a private in the 15th New York National Guard Regiment, which later became the 369th Infantry Regiment He then passed the officer's examination to be commissioned as a lieutenant After obtaining his commission, he was asked by his commander to form a military band as part of the combat unit

The 369th was the first Black American unit to land in Europe The unit experienced intense racism at every level during their train-up in Camp Wadsworth in Spartanburg, SC and yet more down range It was finally decided Apr 8, 1918 to assign the unit to the French Army for duration of the United States' participation in the war The men were issued French helmets and brown leather belts and pouches, although they continued to wear their US uniforms

When the unit arrived in France on New Year's Day 1918, it was the first African-American combat unit to set foot on French soil During their march into one French city, Europe's band added stylish syncopation to a tune for several minutes until the French Soldiers snapped to attention, realizing that the tune was France's National Anthem Following a performance, some French Soldiers were so baffled by what they heard that they asked to examine the horns of the 369th's Band, in disbelief of the sounds that came out of them Europe's band entertained troops and citizens in every city they visited and was received with great enthusiasm

The 369th endured 191 unbroken days of combat, won 171 decorations for bravery, more than any other American unit, and took special pride in the name the French gave them - the Hellfighters After the fighting was finally over, they came home to New York on February 17, 1919, to a victory parade up 5th Avenue to Harlem Thousands of New Yorkers, white as well as black, poured into the streets to cheer them

During his deployment, Europe co-composed "On Patrol In No Man's Land" The song quickly became a favorite among US veterans He continually worked to improve the lives of his Soldiers and his fellow musicians, who were subjected to the awfulness of Jim Crow racism

Europe ironically survived being shot at and gassed in the trenches of France only to die on May 9, 1919, at the hands of one of his own men A deranged drummer named Herbert Wright cut Europe's jugular vein with a penknife while the bandleader was preparing for a show at Mechanics Hall in Boston Wright had been angry because he thought Europe favored his twin brother over him At the time of his death, he was the best-known Black American bandleader in the United States He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery

By Sgt Joe Roos, 34th Infantry Division Public Affairs
February, 2008 Black History Month

Thomas L Morgan, en.wikipedia.org and wwwarlingtoncemeterynet provided information that contributed to this article
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