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“Men of Bronze”: Reflecting on Legacy of the Hellfighters of Harlem

Author: Tara Ann Carter


Hill-Freedman World Academy

Year: 2016

Seminar: Biography as History, or, Perhaps, History as Biography

Grade Level: 9-12

Keywords: African Americans, comic books, English, graphic novels, Harlem Hellfighters, History, Max Brooks, Military History, New York, primary source documents, Secondary Source Documents, Sociology, soldiers, The Great Migration, World War I, Writing Workshop

School Subject(s): African American History

In this unit the United States 369th Infantry Unit is showcased as a vehicle for teaching political and social history in the first quarter of the 20th Century. This unit seeks to explore an approach to educate students about historical military discrimination, as well as interrelated significant movements in early 20th Century political and social African American culture, while celebrating the achievements of previously unsung heroes of color in American history. This unit can serve a variety of purposes, dependent on implementation and emphasis/de-emphasis of particular topics. Though designed for an African-American History course, this unit could be easily modified for use in any other type of History, English Language Arts or Sociology courses.

Max Brooks’ graphic novel The Harlem Hellfighters serves as an anchor text for this unit. The graphic novel will be supplemented with selections from primary and secondary sources on the 369th to create a context and illustrate key moments for African Americans before, during and immediately after World War I.

Download Unit: 16.01.01-unit.pdf

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Full Unit Text

I teach African American History, a mandated high school course in the School District of Philadelphia. While the course is required for high school graduation, there is no set curriculum or much content direction, outside of a lackluster textbook the district has provides. I have taken it as my charge to create an engaging curriculum full of relevant and high-quality topics, texts and historical personae.


Over time I embarked upon a project to created units utilizing graphic novels or historical novels to teach about specific periods of African American history. Max Brooks’ graphic novel hides a wealth of connections to historical events, people and movements behind a deceptively simple presentation. From this text, the history of the First Great Migration, Jim Crow segregation, legacies of African American enlistment and service, the Harlem Renaissance, New Negro Arts and others can be explored and connected to tangentially.


Connection of these topics to the larger socio-political history of the United States brings further relevancy to the study of African Americans in our nations history. It is my hope that through this entry point the voices of these soldiers will open up a space in the curriculum to explore a pluralism of historical American experiences.


Student Learning Outcomes


Upon completion of this unit, students will be able to:


  • Identify and connect elements of historical events and movements in fictional and informational texts
  • Compare and evaluate multiple modalities of storytelling for function and success in communication
  • Gain specific content knowledge of the U.S. 369th Infantry units triumphs, tribulations and notable members
  • Examine the concept of double consciousness and the paradox of enlistment of African Americans in World War I


Analyzing Academic Sources – Primary and Secondary Readings


Students will be provided with selected informational chapters, NPR podcasts, general articles and primary source documents such as military records, letters and photos to establish historical context and interpretation of the events described in the graphic novel.


This multimedia approach works in an effort to appeal to students who learn via different modalities. Students will be guided to connect the documents provided toward identification of bias or partiality in the narrative structure and analysis of the accuracy of depiction of the primary and secondary source evidence in the presentation of the graphic novel anchor text and the documentary, Men of Bronze, in their summative assessment, the essay. Students will also use this compendium of information to inform reflection journal responses and participant in a writing workshop in order to write an argumentative essay described in Classroom Activities below.


Graphic Novels in the Classroom


Since their introduction into society almost a century ago, comics are often considered children’s reading material. However, in the increasingly multi-sensory world we live in, standard black-and-white typewritten text is not necessarily the best available way to express a concept or narrative. Since 1987, graphic novels have slowly crept into realm of possibility within a mainstream curriculum. It is a well-known fact that Art Spiegelman’s Maus changed what comics were. The publication of Maus 1987 signaled the public recognition of a genre that was alive, albeit underground, for decades prior.


Literary devices, theme, plot and other hallmarks of “English Class” are present in the same capacity as a standard novel and often the pictures lend to an additional level of complexity that must be deciphered. The Harlem Hellfighters revisits and retells the complicated history and politics of our country in a way that is understandable to middle-school students and above. Because the content is accessible to young adults means only that it is written in such a manner that it is universally understandable, not that the text is not appropriate for adult or college readers. Instead the appeal of the graphic novel form is that the content counterbalances the simplicity of the language and “help” the reader receives from the pictures.


Teaching graphic novels in conjunction with other various texts provides students with the best possible type of humanities education. The more modalities of content students are prepared to decode and figure out in different shapes and sizes, the more success students will be a problem-solving in future classes as well as in life. The use of graphic novels in classroom supports this non-traditional approach to literature.


Literacy through Reading, Writing, Listening and Speaking


The Pennsylvania Common Core Standards have four categories: (1) Reading, (2) Writing, (3) Listening and (4) Speaking. This unit endeavors to satisfy all four with a diversity of activities described below. Students will practice reading through investigation of the graphic novel, The Harlem Hell Fighters, and a secondary informational source: Chapter 2 “The Argument” of Peter Nelson’s A More Unbending Battle. Students will practice writing through reading logs, text to world/self/text reflection journals, and an argumentative paper, created during a writing workshop, described below in Classroom Activities. Additionally, students will listen to a NPR podcast and screen the documentary, Men of Bronze, which includes footage of interviews with some of the soldiers of the 369th. Lastly, speaking will be reinforced in the peer-editing sessions that are part of the writing workshop.

Classroom Activities

In order to teach this graphic novel and achieve the objectives effectively, I recommend the teacher introduce students to the historical period and the direction of inquiry first through a brief introductory lecture using the Historical Background information provide above. Then students will continue the anticipatory set with either individual or entire group listening of the podcast, followed by diving into reading the graphic novel (independently or in literature circles) through the segmentation suggested below. After students read the sections and answer the connection journal, the teacher can provide further point of inquiry, as students need direction via further questioning, discussion, journaling or other preferred modalities.


Before beginning the Writing Workshop, students will view the Men in Bronze documentary for further perspective. Each teacher should best determine the level of engagement and note-taking students should perform while viewing the film. For older students, simply watching and/or jotting information about key terms is more than sufficient, whereas younger students may benefit from more structured note taking or direct questions in order to focus their energy and comprehension.


The two activity sets below are by no means comprehensive teaching lesson plans, but rather, suggested activities to bookend the work students will complete during the course of this unit of study. Additionally, in an African American History classroom, Du Bois’ concept of double consciousness should be one that students understand well prior to the outset of this unit. If this is not the case, the teacher should carve out a day or so to present a mini-lesson or lecture on the idea to guide students through unpacking many of the ideas that connect the themes of this unit.


Activity Set One: Reading Logs and Connection Journals


Students will engage in two types of writing tasks while reading the graphic novel text that is the center of this unit. These activities help students to improve comprehension and retain character and narrative details in order to strengthen their analysis and evaluation of the text. Rigor is a result of moving students in their thinking from identification such as who/what to critical thinking domains, which instead respond to why or how. These activities seek to create this type of rigor while students are reading, as a direct push back to the standard chapter response questions that promote very little higher-order thinking.


For each of the activities, I envision that the book would be divided into five assigned reading sections: (1) pages 1-60; (2) 61-130; (3) 131-187; (4) 188 – 235; (5) Author’s Note and Historical Background. These sections have been selected because maximize natural breaks in the narrative to make reading over multiple days feel seamless.


Depending on the number of books available and the type of students one teaches, reading could be completed in class, either independently or with a partner, or, alternately, students could read at home in preparation for extended writing and discussion time in class. Regardless if students read and home or in class, each will complete a series of reading logs and least one reflection journal for each of the sections


Activity A: Reading Logs


Reading logs are a simple strategy to help students track plot and character progress, important details and unfamiliar vocabulary. The most basic way to assemble these charts is to have students fold a sheet of notebook paper in half and label two columns with appropriate focus topics such as: event/importance; new word/definition sentence example; character/flaws and strengths. Depending on time available and learning level of the student, I may ask students to complete one, two or all three of the topics outlined as they read. This is a useful for strategic skill focus and also differentiation for above or below grade level learners. For those teachers with access to technology, this activity can be augmented by the use of Google Docs and the use of Google Classroom to create chart templates and record evidence electronically.


Activity B: Connection Journals


Connection journals encourage higher-order thinking skills by requiring students to evaluate, analyze and connect the text to their life, the world or another text. I suggest one journal per assigned chunk of text, outlined above.  The journal prompts for each of the five sections are as follows:


Section One – In a few paragraphs, examine the motivations and conflicting issues of African Americans enlisting in the Armed Services. Use evidence from the graphic novel and also the informational text chapter by Nelson.


Section Two – What are the “rules” of war that the Hellfighters begin to understanding as they arrived in Europe? How are the engagements of war and the engagements of racial etiquette entangled here? Explain with text detail.


Section Three – In a paragraph or two, discuss the tensions of race that runs through this section. Give analysis of specific evidence from the graphic novel.


Section Four – What emotions/feelings does the final section elicit in the reader? How does the text attempt to achieve this response? Reflect on how the ideal versus the reality of military enlistment for African Americans.


Section Five – After reviewing the end sections, Author’s Note and Historical Background, how do these documents increase the depth of your knowledge about the U.S. 369th? Do you believe the graphic novel provides an accurate portrayal of the raw facts presented in the Historical Background? Why or why not?


Activity Set Two: Writing Workshop


The writing workshop is a method to encourage students slow down and focus on writing for a set number of days. In my classroom a complete writing workshop, from brainstorming to final submission, typically takes about seven 45-minute class periods. Described below are the phases of the writing workshop: drafting, peer editing and final submission.


For this unit, the writing workshop student will choose from two prompts. The prompts are as follows:


Using at least three of the resources presented in class, discuss one of the following topics –


  1. a) The paradox of enlistment and military discrimination in World War I




  1. b) The struggle to form a cohesive American identity for African Americans during this time period


Activity A: Drafting from an Outline


After introducing the prompt and writing expectations, students will briefly brainstorm their own ideas, text examples, connections, etc. Then, students should be presented with a model outline. Picking a similar type of text and using examples to complete and outline and model essay for students to work from, as an exemplar, is effective. Paragraph guidelines, breakdowns and formatting depend on the teacher’s writing instruction method/curriculum. The most important skill in this activity is the idea that writing should be planned and then draft from implementation of that plan, followed by review and revision.


Activity B: Peer Editing


In the last few years I have actively reflected on my practice of teaching writing to my ninth-grade students and have given many different techniques trial runs to find the most comprehensive way to reach all of my students. This style of peer editing has become a standard in my classroom and an activity that students regularly recall to be helpful to them and a task that they find engaging and enjoyable.


After walking students through the drafting process with model topic sentences and paragraphs, students receive a round of feedback from their peers to improve any elements of their writing before the instructor assesses it. Peer-editing can last one or two days, depending on both the number of days available within each teacher’s school demands and also the needs and achievement levels of the students. During this period, while students are conferencing with one another, the teacher can pull out any students who are particularly struggling for some personalization instruction.


Procedurally, students come to class prepared with a revised rough draft of their essay. In timed rounds of 10 minutes, students will read each one another’s work and provide feedback on a teacher-generated checklist of focus areas. I usually vary the points of focus depending on what stage of the year we are in and what issues I have seen repeatedly recur in students writing recently. If the instructor has access to technology, the ideal way to do this type of work is by having students share documents with one another and provide comments electronically within Google Docs. The low-tech option is as simple as a handwritten copy of the essay and a supply of post-it notes for students to adhere onto their peers work.


This method gives students a chance to get feedback in a low-risk interaction, allows students to see multiple examples of others writing and also satiates the need for socialization that students genuinely yearn for and need in an academic and meaningful way.

Annotated Bibliography

Brooks, Max, and Caanan White. The Harlem Hellfighters. 1st ed. NY: Broadway, NY.


This graphic novel presents an exquisitely illustrated fictionalized first-person account of the valor and skill of the Harlem Hellfighters. Commentary on the racial tension and connection to the larger social movements for liberty and equality at home provide a nuanced presentation of a emerging class of narratives on the plurality of the soldiers that serve and defense the United States.


Harris, Bill. The Hellfighters of Harlem: African American Soldiers Who Fought for the Right to Fight for Their Country. New York: Carroll & Graf Pub., 2002.


Harris’ text traces the interwoven histories of the 369th and the fight for civil rights in the U. S. The history of the men after they returned is given particular attention and the text provides a full picture of the people and public climate of the era.


Harris, Stephen L. Harlem’s Hell Fighters: The African American 369th Infantry in World War I. Washington, D.C.: Brassey’s, 2003.


Stephen Harris provides a well-researched and comprehensive contemporary history of the regiment and its men. Of the books listed in this bibliography this is the most densely packed with fact and meticulous detail.


Lewis, J. Patrick, and Gary Kelley. Harlem Hellfighters.


An illustrated children’s book narrating the valor of the Harlem Hellfighters. Illustrations are interspersed with significant dates and poetic treatment of events and movements of the 369th. Useful for differentiation.


Little, Arthur West. From Harlem to the Rhine: The Story of New York’s Colored Volunteers. New York: Covici Friede, 1936.


One of the first publications about the bravery of the 369th, this sometimes dated text provides an useful snapshot into the attitudes and presentation of African Americans within a decade of the Hellfighters victory and decoration in France.


Men of Bronze. Dir. William Miles. Films Inc., 1978.


A documentary film highlighting the men and their triumphs during World War I, including interview with members of the 369th still living at the time of filming. Available for free to stream and download via Internet Archive.


Nelson, Peter. A More Unbending Battle: The Harlem Hellfighters’ Struggle for Freedom in WWI and Equality at Home. Basic Civitas, 2009.


Nelson, like Bill Harris, connects the themes of racial inequity at home and military superiority abroad. Nelson’s second Chapter, “The Argument”, provides an excellent breakdown of the metaphorical dual-edged sword that is black involvement in U.S. Military pursuits, as well as political voices from both sides during the First World War.


Williams, Charles H. Negro Soldiers in World War I: The Human Side. New York: AMS, 1970.


Charles H. Williams, more famous for his creation of the first traveling dance team from Hampton Institute, is also the writer of a handful of histories of black people during the first half of the 20th century. Originally published in 1923, this quasi-scientific investigation provides insight more into the attitudes of society at the time. Williams attempts to preempt and address issue of racial misconceptions and stereotypes in order to provide an accurate and through picture of the treatment of black forces in the military.


Wang, Hansi Lo. “The Harlem Hellfighters: Fighting Racism In The Trenches of WWI”. Code Switch. NPR. Retrieved 1 Mar 2016.


This NPR program is an informative under 5 minute summary of the Harlem Hellfighters. This resource is ideal for struggling readers or as a teaser/preface to unit. Transcript of interview and audio are provided on the website.


A Note on Standards


In terms of national Common Core history standards, as no Pennsylvania State Standards yet exist for African American History, this unit satisfies RH.9-10.1-3, which focus on reading a variety of informational texts for key details, as well as RH.9-10.4-6, focusing on craft and structure of informational writing and RH.9-10.9, which calls for compare and contrast of sources as a method of demonstration integration of knowledge and ideas. The readings in this unit also satiate the requirement for the increased complexity of texts, a hallmark of the Common Core standards.


Pennsylvania adopted the PA Common Core Standards, which for English Language Arts requires increased focus on close textual analysis, persuasive writing and reading informational texts.  The standards also put emphasis on not only reading and writing, but also listening and speaking. This unit satisfies these stipulations through the requirement of students to read texts comparatively, write arguments using textual evidence to prepare for the final assessment, present their findings orally and, finally, listen to others and evaluate their work.