An exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture shows Blacks fighting heroically for the U.S. overseas and their fellow Americans for civil rights domestically.
The exhibit, “We Return Fighting: The African American Experience in World War I,” features the social, cultural, political, economic and intellectual experiences of African Americans before, during and after World War I. The exposition runs until June 14 and features photographs, pictures, posters, displays and uniforms of the World War I era relating to African Americans.
The exhibit includes graphic representations of Blacks on the war front in segregated units and even Africans who fought in the conflict for their colonizers.
Spencer D. Crew, interim director of the museum, said the World War I era permanently changed America and the world and ignited African American’s aspirations for full citizenship.
“Some 17 to 21 million soldiers and civilians died in what was the worst war in modern history,” Crew said. “Empires fell, maps were redrawn and the lives of countless people were forever changed. For African Americans, the war tested the meaning of citizenship and patriotism. They went to war fighting for democracy abroad: they returned fighting for democracy at home.”
The exhibit highlights the work of nine Black luminaries who emerged as leaders for equal rights during the WWI period: A. Philip Randolph, W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells, Col. Charles Young, Mary Church Terrell, Lt. Charles Hamilton Houston, Oscar DePriest, Josephine Baker and Robert Abbott.
Krewasky A. Salter, the exhibit’s curator, said the luminaries’ selection had to do with their work in confronting racial injustices at a level that hadn’t been done before.
“Randolph spoke out against the war, saying that the U.S. government should have protected the rights of Negroes in Georgia instead of fighting abroad,” Salter said. “DuBois embraced the war, writing in the Crisis magazine that this was a fight for democracy. When DuBois and other Blacks like him found out they were duped, he began to take a more militant stand regarding civil rights.
“Houston was one of the few Black officers in the military and was so outraged by the mistreatment of Black soldiers, he committed his life to fighting for civil rights,” he said. “Robert Abbott, the founder and publisher of the Chicago Defender, urged Blacks to leave the South and come to the North for a better way of life. Josephine Baker left the United States and became one of the most successful entertainers in Europe, especially France.”
The exhibit shows “The New Negro” that emerged from the World War I period. “The New Negro” became more aggressive about civil rights issues, with Wells writing powerful articles and commentaries on lynching, Terrell advocating for the voting rights of Black women and the election of African American Oscar DePriest of Chicago to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1928, Crew points out.
Salter said that while historians say 1955 events such as Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat for a white man and the lynching of Emmett Till fueled the civil rights movement, the defiant stand taken by many Blacks in WWI era laid the groundwork for the movement.
“World War I planted the seeds of agitation,” he said. “This was the first generation of Blacks who stirred the pot. They encountered deeply-ingrained, mob violence-oriented whites during that time, but they pressed on. Because of them, African Americans have the rights that we have today.”