Bisa Butler Quilts Harlem Hellfighters into History

Published: 23 March 2023

By Victoria Macchi
via the National Archives News web site

1919 Photo of members of the Harlem Hellfighters (left); Bisa Butler's "Don't Tread on Me, God Damn, Let's Go! — The Harlem Hellfighters," 2021. Pieced, appliqued, and quilted cottons, silk, wool, and velvet. Image courtesy of Bisa Butler (right).

Artwork inspired by a World War I–era photo of Black soldiers known as the Harlem Hellfighters turns a National Archives record into a larger-than-life quilt at the Renwick Gallery in Washington, DC.

Bisa Butler crafted “Don’t Tread on Me, God Damn, Let’s Go! — The Harlem Hellfighters” after finding the image during online research.

“It was one of the thrills of my life to be able to study and create artwork based off of the National Archives’ magnificent photo,” Butler said of the image, taken by the International Film Service.

“I’m used to seeing beautiful photos of the Tuskegee Airmen, so I assumed I was looking at them,” the artist told National Archives News. “Then I read the caption, and it said the year—and that was World War I.”

The original image from February 12, 1919, is part of the series, American Unofficial Collection of World War I Photographs, 1917–1918. It depicts nine Black soldiers of the 369th Infantry Regiment aboard the USS Stockholm, awaiting arrival in New York City following the armistice that ended the war.

“They have that superhero look to them. They’re kneeling, like they’re about to launch out of the screen. You can feel that vibrant energy, all handsome. They all look like they’ve got the world at their fingertips,” Butler said.

Drawn in by the composition, the faces, and the Hellfighters name, Butler set out to make the quilt, which is approximately 9 feet tall by 13 feet wide.

She renders the black-and-white image in saturated tones and abundant textures, each man’s visage with a distinct combination of quilted patterns.

Butler felt a similar draw to the image as Barbara Lewis Burger, a retired National Archives Still Picture Senior Archivist, who in 2017 wrote a lengthy post for the National Archives blog “Rediscovering Black History” about the soldiers in the photo.

A detail from the quilt portrait “Don’t Tread on Me, God Damn, Let’s Go! — The Harlem Hellfighters” by Bisa Butler.

Through robust research (based largely on U.S. Army and New York National Guard records and Veterans Affairs burial files) Burger deepened the men’s histories beyond the photo’s caption and went on to inform Butler’s own research for the quilt.

Both Butler and Burger focused on raising the image, the names, and the history from obscurity.

“I’m so thankful that the men pictured in this image continue to receive the tributes they so rightfully deserve,” Burger said.

Butler went even further; sharp-eyed viewers will note that two of the men wear medals around their necks that aren’t pictured in the original photo.

“Some of them are wearing the Congressional Gold Medal—I put it on them,” Butler explained.

The men all wear the Croix de Guerre, awarded to the regiment in 1918 by the French government. But in creating the quilt, Butler said she wanted to perform an act of what she calls “restorative history” with her artwork.

Read the entire article on the National Archives News web site here.

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