From slavery to the Hellfighters of Harlem |

From slavery to the Hellfighters of Harlem

J.K. Perry
Special to the DailyRev. Robert Woods - Robert Aikens' great grandfather - lived as a slave in the south during the 1800s.

VAIL – For years, Robert Aikens’ family history was hazy. Then Aikens’ father cleared up his past, revealing his great-grandfather Rev. Robert Woods’ life as a slave in Valdosta, Ga., during the 1800s.

For many years, Aikens’ father hadn’t spoken a word about Woods’ shackled life.”You forgot to mention this,” an awestruck Aikens questioningly said to his father at the time.The discovery lead to more digging. Aikens, 45, showed a photo of Woods clothed in a bow tie, collared shirt and dress coat to Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House of Representatives and a history buff. Gingrich told Aikens it was likely Woods – born in the 1830s – was a house slave based on his attire.These nuggets of truth came to Aikens – owner of Verbatim Bookseller in Vail – over the course of more than 10 years researching family lineage. In that time he also learned his grandfather fought in World War I with the U.S. Army’s first black regiment, commonly referred to as the Hellfighters of Harlem.Aikens’ own father, an award-winning chef, bounced from seasonal job to seasonal job along the East Coast during Jim Crow when blacks were separated from whites.

Guns roaringSpread out across a table in the house where Aikens lives in Vail are the collected photos of his family, some images cracking under the burden of 100 years of aging. The photos and family progress down the table from a slave to a photo of business owner – Aikens – skiing on Vail Mountain.Aikens explains how delving into family history began as a conversation with the late Black Panther Stokely Carmichael, who later adopted the name Kwame Ture.”If you ask a black person where they’re from, they’ll say Georgia,” Aikens said. “White people say they’re from this little town in Ireland. Carmichael said black people need to know their history.”Born in 1898, grandfather Harrison Vroman enlisted in the Army in 1917 to fight in World War I with the 369th Regiment. At the time, blacks weren’t allowed to fight under U.S. command. Instead, the French took the Hellfighters of Harlem into the Battle of Champagne and others.

In a U.S. Army document Aikens recovered, he tied Vroman to the battle. Then Aikens discovered details from the battle in an excerpt from a Kansas City-based Web site,”On midnight, July 14-15, the greatest artillery barrage of the war opened the battle; guns every 10 meters along 42 kilometers of front on both sides roared for four hours, then 200,000 German infantrymen assaulted the French and American positions,” according to the Web site. “Much of the fighting was hand-to-hand with grenades, clubbed rifles, bayonets and trench knives.”The revelation astounded Aikens.”I thought, ‘Oh my god, my grandfather is a part of history – big time,'” Aikens said.

Cooking in the southAikens’ father, also named Robert, spent summers working in Lake George, N.Y. at Fan and Bill’s, then a popular restaurant chain up and down the East Xoast. Robert, who served in World War II, spent winters working for the restaurant in Washington, D.C. or Miami.Traveling in the rural south between the locations during Jim Crow and tense race relations was stressful at best, fatal at worst, the son said.”He had to make it to a place where blacks could stay,” Aikens said. “You could be lynched along these roads. How did you know where to stay – word of mouth? I can’t imagine that because I travel alone.”These people lived it; they’re not kidding,” Aikens said.

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The experience later prompted Aikens’ parents to escape the south.”One reason my brother and I were raised in the north, my parents wanted to keep us away from prejudices,” Aikens said. “They wanted us to have an education.”Staff Writer J.K. Perry can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 14622, or, Colorado

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