It’s come to my attention that the Alice Desmond and Hamilton Fish Library in Garrison is discussing changing its name, and that this is being done because of allegations that former Rep. Fish, the library’s co-founder, collaborated with pro-German interests before World War II, thinking that we could and should avoid entering the war.
Among his friends and supporters there were many who disagreed that America should be involved in European problems. I am not a historian, but there was a time when even the late and great Franklin Delano Roosevelt indicated that he would never send our troops abroad.
Having said that, the main thing that I can add to this discussion is that the late Capt. Hamilton Fish III was one damn cantankerous patriot and warrior when it came to African Americans and their performance in combat under his leadership. I know much more about racism in the U.S. than I do about fascism in the 1930s, but I can assure you when African Americans — who were known as “Negroes” at the time — needed a friend, Ham Fish III was there.
Most people don’t know that our great country refused to allow Negroes to participate even as volunteers in World War I. An exception was made for the 369th Regiment in New York, an all-Black unit. They were trained in segregated facilities, and as our military refused to allow them to fight with U.S. troops, they were sent to Europe to fight alongside French troops. Not only did Capt. Fish help prove that American Negroes were capable of fighting in World War I, he brought his troops home as the most decorated American soldiers that fought in that war.
In 1950, I was a volunteer in the U.S. Army stationed in Fort Lewis, Washington, with an all-Black, 155-mm howitzer artillery unit in an all-white division, then known as the 2nd Indian Head Division. We were the first U.S.-based troops to arrive on the Korean peninsula to help halt the Communists from invading below the 38th parallel, which had been set up by the United Nations to separate North and South Korea after World War II.
By the time I was discharged in 1952, I had a Purple Heart, four battle stars and Korean presidential citations, yet I was not well received in stateside veterans’ organizations, whose leadership was largely composed of white men who had served in World War I and World War II.
However, right in my community — only a dozen blocks from where I was born and raised and where I live today — stood the 369th Armory and the home of the Harlem Hellfighters of World War I. They welcomed veterans of every war, including veterans of the Korean War.
The support that I received marked the beginning of the journey of a high school dropout who went on to serve as a member of the House of Representatives for 46 years, culminating eventually in my becoming the first Black chair of the powerful Ways and Means Committee.
I cite this long history because the 369th played such an important role in the formation of my career and that of the many veterans of World War I who were attending meetings of the 369th Veterans Association. There I heard the stories of the 369th’s role in Europe, and the legend of the courageous Capt. Fish battling racism in America and abroad in order to give Black soldiers an opportunity to defend our great country. It made me more proud than any of the medals I had earned in Korea.
I went on to become president of the Manhattan branch of the 369th Veterans Association and I participated for decades in the parades that we held each year. Black people and Black leaders would come from all over the country to share in our pride as we marched up Fifth Avenue, just as the 369th had marched after their return home from World War I.
Each year as we passed the grandstand, there was one elderly white man, standing tall and erect and proudly saluting the veterans of the 369th. As president of the association, I would return Capt. Fish’s salute, while he stood there, in his 80s and later his 90s, saluting the troops. Every year as we marched by the grandstand we could depend on one thing, that Capt. Hamilton Fish would be waiting for us.
Later on, in 1971, I was elected to the House of Representatives and appointed to serve on the Judiciary Committee under the leadership of the late Peter Rodino. To my surprise and delight, the son of Capt. Fish was already an established member of the committee. And later, when we found out that our 369th Regiment had been denied a federal charter, Ham Fish Jr. and I got together with Rodino and we brought home a federal designation for the 369th Veterans Association.
During my 46 years in Congress, I was honored to serve as a kind of political referee between father and son, Capt. Hamilton Fish and my Republican buddy, Ham Fish Jr. One thing is for certain: My hero from World War I was one of the feistiest, most irascible and argumentative conservatives I had ever met, while his son was one of the most gracious and considerate — and reformed — Republicans who sat in the House. It was a privilege for me to deliver messages from one to the other, back and forth, even though thinking back on it I wonder if I made much difference.
You may ask what has all this got to do with the controversy over the naming of the Desmond-Fish Library. I would like to say to the people of Garrison, you should know if you tear down the name of Capt. Hamilton Fish III, then you’ll be tearing out the hearts of the proud 369th veterans whom he led with such courage during World War I, a war in which he and the 369th had to fight not only Germans but racism as well.
Charles Rangel, New York City
Rangel, a Democrat, served in Congress from 1971 to 2017.
Photo by Sean Pressley