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    Unexpected Harlem Armory time messenger reveals snapshot of 1923

    Harlem Armory time capsule surprises historians

    Courtesy Photo | Courtney Burns, director of the New York State Military Museum, examines the copper...... read more read more



    Story by Eric Durr 

    New York National Guard

    SARATOGA SPRINGS, New York --The replacement of a 99-year-old granite cornerstone plaque of the New York National Guard's Harlem Armory drill floor, exposed a mystery when contractors found a sealed copper box inside the stone on Feb. 19, 2022.

    The armory, home of the New York Army National Guard's 369th Sustainment Brigade, was built to house the 369th Infantry Regiment -the drill hall in 1921-24 and the administrative building in the 1930s- made famous during their service in World War I as the Harlem Hell Fighters.

    Originally the 15th Infantry, New York National Guard, the regiment comprised of Black Soldiers and commanded mostly by white officers, fought as part of a French division.

    Renumbered as the 369th U.S. Infantry, the regiment spent 191 days in combat, never retreated and accumulated 170 French Croix de Guerre awards for heroism.

    The mystery box's contents highlighted the pride of Black New Yorkers in their regiment, their culture, and city officials' recognition of the 369th and the black community, according to Courtney Burns, the director of the New York State Military Museum, in Saratoga Springs, New York.

    Boxes like this were a way of reaching out to the future, Burns said.

    The ceremonial cornerstone was laid on May 27, 1923, by New York City Mayor John Francis Hylan, who had also broken ground for the armory in November 1921.

    William Hayward, who had commanded the 369th in France and was then the U.S. attorney for New York, spoke at the ceremony, as did Congressman -later New York City mayor- Fiorello LaGuardia.

    The team at the New York State Military Museum couldn't find any mention of the time capsule left in the cornerstone in reports of the event, Burns said.

    So, when construction crews took off the decaying granite with 1922 chiseled on it, they were surprised to find a hollowed-out area with the box inside, said Capt. Douglas Peters, the project manager for the Harlem Armory.

    The workers reported what they found, carefully removed it, took photos and turned it over to the New York National Guard facilities office.

    The box went to Burns, the custodian of the thousands of historical artifacts from the New York National Guard's 44 armories, and the flagship museum in Saratoga Springs.

    "Honestly, I had no idea what to expect," Burns said.

    "We had no idea what was in there. And the shape of it -it was like a large shoebox- it could have been anything, it could have been small little souvenirs, like medals or coins," he recalled.

    By the times Burns felt he was finally ready to open the box without damaging it on March 10, it felt a little bit like opening the tomb of Tutankhamun.

    "It is a copper box. It was soldered around the top. We just took a screwdriver, and cold chisel, and carefully tapped around it so we could break the seal and then pried it up enough," he said.

    "It was actually really kind of fun and exciting opening it," he said.

    What Burns discovered was a trove of printed materials that he said, "represents a specific point in time."

    "It represents a real sense of celebration of this achievement, this milestone in African-American history; for the construction of a building for an African-American unit that would have been inconceivable before," Burns said.

    "It is an acknowledgement, too, of the contributions of the 369th. It really recognizes what they did in Europe," Burns added.

    Many of the items carefully packed inside the box are directly related to the 369th Infantry Regiment.

    These included five issues of the "New York Age," a weekly African-American newspaper, which highlighted the service of the "15th New York," as it was then known.

    The May 25, 1918, issue headline reads "French decorate 2 men of the 15th."

    The story highlights the award of the Croix de Guerre to Private Henry Johnson -who posthumously received the Medal of Honor in 2015- and Private Needham Roberts for their heroism in defeating a German patrol.

    The Nov. 23, 1918, headline reads: "Old 15th in lead on the Western Front: In most advanced position on the Western Front as the fighting stops."

    There are two typewritten histories of the 369th, one which concludes May 27, 1923, the date the cornerstone of the armory was laid.

    There is a program for the showing of a movie called "Hell Fighters" at the Lafayette Theater on May 15, 1920, during which the regiment's band played.

    There is also a list of the members of the various New York City boards responsible for funding the construction of the armory, indicating their support for the project.

    "I don't know if they envisioned a benefit to the city or if there was just a consensus that something needed to be provided for Harlem. Not only the 369th itself, but the community," Burns said.

    This document was signed by people associated with the 369th, including Noble Sissle, who served in the 369th band and went on to write the song "I'm Just Wild About Harry."

    The documents included in the box focused on more than just the 369th, they addressed broader themes of African-American accomplishment, Burns said.

    A program for a New York City memorial honoring the life of Col. Charles Young, which was also held on May 27, 1923, was included in the time capsule.

    Young, who graduated from West Point in 1889, went on to have a distinguished career as a military leader commanding the Buffalo Soldiers of the 9th Cavalry Regiment in the Philippines and Mexican intervention, and served as military attache in Haiti and Liberia.

    Young died in Africa in 1922 and in 1923 his remains were brought home to be interred at Arlington National Cemetery.

    Speakers at the event included Theodore Roosevelt Jr. -the son of the former president- and Black author and activist, W.E.B. Dubois.

    There was also the Dec. 25, 1922, issue of a magazine called the National Review. The magazine described itself as "A journal Devoted to the Progress and Development of the Colored People."

    Burns said he was also surprised to see many items from the company which built the armory's steel framework, the New York City firm of Post and McCord.

    Post and McCord built Ebbetts Field, the long-time home of the Brooklyn Dodgers, many New York commercial buildings and the steel frame of the Empire State Building in 1930.

    There were four promotional books from Post and McCord. Two highlighted projects from 1917 and two from 1920. There was also a photograph of Paul Francis Needlhan, the son of Capt. Lawrence V. Needlhan, the superintendent of construction of the project.

    Post and McCord also deposited the payroll for the 198 people working on the building for the week of May 17-24, 1923. Most of the employees worked five days a week for eight hours and a half day on Saturday, and made $49.50 a week.

    Finally, there was a photograph labeled "Priv. Josiah A. Thomas/died Feb. 19 '22 "Co. C". On the back, in the same handwriting, is the inscription, "From Cousin Irma J. Rock."

    Burns said his goal is to put together an online exhibit that will allow the public to view the documents which were deposited in that copper box 99 years ago.

    "As a whole, you really get a sense of community pride and vibrancy within the African-American community," Burns said. "Even though this is something that was administered by the city, it's content is very specific towards the 369th and the African-American community in general," Burns said.



    Date Taken: 07.25.2022
    Date Posted: 07.25.2022 15:47
    Story ID: 425756
    Location: SARATOGA SPRINGS , NY, US 

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