The story of Fort Ontario in Oswego, New York is a long one. Now a historic site that’s open to the public, the star-shaped fort dates to the early 1840’s. The Fort’s ramparts feature “magnificent views of Lake Ontario and underground stone casemates and galleries to tour,” according to the NY Parks website.
The fort was also a site of firsts. It was home to the 24th Infantry, the first segregated unit of Black soldiers to come through Oswego in 1907, six years prior to New York’s first Black infantry regiment known as the Harlem Hellfighters, who battled in World War I and World War II in the Pacific Theater. Just three years after the Hellfighters left Oswego, in 1944, the fort served as the only refugee camp in the United States for mostly Jewish victims of the Holocaust. While their stories are different, their experiences with the community around the fort were similarly difficult. Their stories live on at this site upstate, reminders of the parallels between American racism and European antisemitism.
1908: the 24th Infantry Arrive
The 24th Infantry Regiment was the first segregated unit of Black soldiers to arrive in Oswego. Perhaps the headline from the Buffalo Morning Express on September 13, 1907 characterized the local community’s reaction best: “All Right for the Fighting, but when our Negro Troops want Quarters in Time of Peace, there’s a Protest.” Black people risked their lives for the U.S. but were still be met with racism and hostility from their white neighbors.
These are the soldiers who are known as “buffalo soldiers,” referring to all-Black units formed in the American West after the Civil War. These buffalo soldiers were given permission to stay at Fort Oswego by President Theodore Roosevelt, despite community complaints and objections from then-Congressman Charles Knapp and State Republican Committee Representative and Oswego banker John T. Mott. Local business owners also threatened to raise their prices to deter the soldiers from frequenting their establishments.
But the 24th Infantry arrived as planned, and immediately poured themselves and their money into the local economy and forming positive community relationships. Many of the soldiers’ belongings had been lost or destroyed prior to their arrival, and many weren’t ready for lake effect climate of upstate New York. Eventually, the soldiers came to participate in parades and sporting events in Oswego, and the Regiment’s band performed in the town on a regular basis.
The 24th Infantry Regiment were deployed to the Philippines in November 1911 and never returned to Oswego. However, in their three years at Fort Ontario they paved the way for another generation of Black soldiers, as well as the Jewish Holocaust survivors who would reside there during World War II.
The Harlem Hellfighters
The history of all-Black regiments is long-storied, and must include the Harlem Hellfighters, who also incredibly spent time at Fort Ontario. Harlem Hellfighters came to Oswego during World War II with a long and proud history, but before that, and just a few years after the Phillipine war, the 369th Infantry Regiment was formed to fight in World War I. Even so, they were not permitted to participate in the farewell “Rainbow Parade” when leaving for Europe. The parade planners told them that “Black is not a color in the Rainbow.” During World War I the unit was prevented from fighting alongside white regiments from the U.S., so they fought alongside French units instead. Their valor in these efforts earned them the nickname “the Harlem Hellfighters.”
Two members of the Hellfighters, Corporal Henry Johnson and Private Needham Roberts, refused to abandon their outpost on the Western front despite sustaining dozens of bullet wounds and being encircled by a group of German soldiers. They became the first-ever American soldiers to be awarded the French Croix de Guerre. Neither received any recognition from the U.S. upon their return, though Johnson alone had suffered 21 wounds. He did not receive disability support from the U.S. government and died 11 years later in New York.
They received a welcome parade for their valor upon returning to New York, but they were not permitted to participate in the official victory parade with white soldiers. The regiment then became part of the New York National Guard during the Interwar Period.
Over two decades later, as World War II raged in Europe, President Roosevelt’s 1940 Congress, concerned with preparing the U.S. to join World War II, passed legislation authorizing the induction of state National Guard Units into federal units. The Hellfighters then became the 369th Coast Artillery Regiment and began their training at Fort Ontario in January 1941. The group of 1,600 served as an anti-aircraft unit and later gained renown in combat for their skills with 3” artillery guns.
Back in Oswego, New York, the Black resident count was at 55 in the county of 71,000 people. The community objected to the Hellfighters’ arrival same as their elders did in 1908. Also in keeping with history’s cyclical nature, the new residents graced the town with music from their band and threw a parade and variety show for the townspeople upon their departure to Camp Edwards in late 1941.
Notably, the Harlem Hellfighters counted in their ranks Lt. John Woodruff, an Olympic athlete who won a gold medal at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, frustrating and obstructing the antisemitic and racist agenda of Nazi leadership at the games. Woodruff was one of 18 Black Americans at the Olympics who subverted the Nazis’ racist rhetoric about the superiority of the Aryan race through their outstanding athletic performances.
And the Holocaust Refugees
Just three years after the departure of the Hellfighters from Fort Ontario, on August 5, 1944, 982 Jewish Holocaust survivors arrived after a lengthy sea voyage from Naples, Italy. The group was mostly comprised of women, children, and the elderly. The majority had already survived concentration camps in Europe. Admitted to the U.S. as “guests” under an Executive Order by President Roosevelt, the residents were confined within the camp for nineteen months, their legal status ambiguous and their future in the U.S. unassured.
These new Jewish residents were met with prejudice from the townsfolk as well. Rumors circulated in Oswego that the Jews were living in luxury behind the fences of the camp, though they lived in cramped conditions in the cold, poorly insulated barracks. Matters were not helped by the language barrier between the townsfolk and the survivors, who represented 18 different countries.
Despite these issues, Oswego was a haven for these grief-stricken residents, and eventually they were able to build relationships as the Fort’s previous residents had. Children from the town and children from the camp met and interacted through the fences. Though the refugees did not have permission to leave the camp, older children were sometimes bussed to the schools in the town during the day.
Some died at the Fort and were buried there in the Post cemetery which still stands, containing the graves of 77 officers, soldiers, women, and children who served at Fort Ontario in war and peace. It is open year-round from dawn to dusk.
The refugees eventually left Oswego and relocated to towns around the U.S. when they received immigration visas, ending another chapter in the complex history of Fort Ontario and the refugees’ lives.