Congress on Monday agreed to award a posthumous Congressional Gold Medal to the Harlem Hellfighters, a black New York National Guard unit that fought in World War I.
The medal is the highest US civilian award alongside the Presidential Medal of Freedom and has been awarded fewer than 200 times — most recently to police forces involved in the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.
Although the men of the 369th Infantry Regiment are dead, the medal was sought by their descendants and pushed by New Yorkers who said the unit wasn’t sufficiently celebrated at the time.
New York Democratic Reps. Tom Suozzi and Adriano Espaillat and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) sponsored the bill, which passed the House in June and the Senate on Monday night.
The Hellfighters spent 191 days in the trenches of France before the war ended. About 1,400 men were killed or wounded, more than any other regiment, according to the congressional offices.
Although the war often is remembered as a struggle between European imperial powers, Gillibrand said in a statement that the New Yorkers fought to “defend our freedoms.”
“The Harlem Hellfighters Congressional Gold Medal Act honors these brave men, who, even as they faced segregation and prejudice, risked their lives to defend our freedoms,” Gillibrand said.
The legislation was drafted by Suozzi after the family of Hellfighter Sgt. Leander Willet contacted him about an ultimately successful Purple Heart request.
Willet’s granddaughter Deb Willett said in a recent statement that “it is our hope that this legislation will help educate future generations about the sacrifices made on their behalf.”
Suozzi told The Post “it is never too late to do the right thing. When I first met with these families and heard their stories, I knew we had to get this done. Today, we got it done.”
President Biden is expected to sign the bill. The medal would be given to the Smithsonian museums to be publicly displayed.