“We Return Fighting: The African American Experience in World War I” recently opened at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. On view until June 14, 2020, the exhibition examines the impact of the war on African life 100 years since it ended.
Covering nearly 100 years of history, from 1865 to 1963, the exhibition is divided into three sections: Pre-War, During the War and Post-War. “We Return Fighting” explores the full range of African American participation in the war—from serving in segregated units as laborers and supply handlers in the United States and France to earning major military awards after fighting alongside the French in Europe. The exhibition goes beyond war history to show how that global conflict changed African American life, contributing to the birth of the Negro Renaissance and the civil rights and labor movements.
“Some 17 to 21 million soldiers and civilians died in what was the worst war in modern history,” said Spencer D. Crew, interim director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. “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.”
African Americans returned to a segregated America where lynchings were on the rise and poor black sharecroppers were leaving the South in search of factory jobs in the North and the West. Those who were highly vocal with their protests became known as “The New Negro,” aggressively pursuing social justice and civil rights.
“On and off the battlefield, during and after the war, African
Americans were fighting for their rights and to make equality a reality,” said Krewasky A. Salter, exhibition curator. “They were asked to serve, but they were subjected to unfair draft practices and were the victims of the one of the largest and most unjust court martials in American history. After the war, the time was right for thinkers and for activists to step forward and help create a better America.”
The exhibition explores the work and the impact of nine African American luminaries who emerged as prominent thinkers and activists: A. Philip Randolph, W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells, Col. Charles Young, Mary Church Terrell, Lt. Charles Hamilton Houston, Oscar de Priest, Josephine Baker and Robert Abbott.
Among the exhibition highlights:
- The Croix de Guerre, the medal France used to recognize the valor of the 369th Infantry Regiment. The unit fought with distinction on the front lines of France for 191 consecutive days and suffered more than 1,400 casualties. Each member of the unit was awarded the medal
- Paintings, drawings and sculptures created by major African American artists, including Charles Alston, Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, Horace Pippin, Henry O. Tanner
- A touch-screen interactive giving access to 146 soldier photographs and details of their war-time duty
- A 1918 photograph of President Woodrow Wilson, Gen. John J. Pershing and an unidentified African American soldier, an image used as a souvenir to document and celebrate the African American participation in the war
- Oil paintings by French artist Lucien Hector Jonas, c. 1917
- Uniforms worn by French, Senegalese and African Americans
- A collection of weapons ranging from pistols, rifles and sabers to items connected to the use of poisonous gas
The museum developed the exhibition in partnership with Mission du centenaire de la Première Guerre mondiale. Based in France, this organization was created to research the impact of World War I through the lens of the African American experience and to commemorate the centennial of the end of the war. The exhibition is supported by Altria Group, Nationwide Foundation and The Robert R. McCormick Foundation. Major funding comes from the Mission du centenaire de la Première Guerre mondiale.
Located inside the museum’s Special Exhibitions Gallery, “We Return Fighting” fills more than 4,000 square feet of space with never-before-seen photographs, original uniforms and weapons, historic film footage, and interactive features. Numerous unique artifacts on display are presented in this exhibition through generous cooperation of institutions in France including: Musée de la Grande Guerre, Historial de la Grande Guerre, La Contemporaine, Bibliotéque, archives, musée des mondes contemporains, Musée de l’Armée, and Musée franco-américain du Château de Blérancourt. Additional loan of historic materials from U.S. institutions have enhanced the exhibition including, The National WWI Museum and Memorial, Women in Military Service For America Memorial Foundation, the Library of Congress and many others. The exhibition is presented with a companion book, “We Return Fighting: World War I and the Shaping of Modern Black Identity.”
About the Companion Book
We Return Fighting: World War I and the Shaping of Modern Black Identity, Smithsonian Books, 160 pages, $19.95. Edited by Kinshasha Holman Conwill, deputy director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. This book presents photographs, artifacts, medals and renderings of battle scenes alongside powerful essays that together explore the roles played by African Americans during World War I and how the wartime experience reshaped their lives and their communities once they returned home.
With a foreword by Phillippe Etienne, Ambassador of France to the United States, and an introduction by Lonnie G. Bunch III, 14th Secretary of the Smithsonian and founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture., the book contains essays by renowned writers, historians and scholars including Lisa Budreau, Brittney Cooper, John Morrow, Krewasky Salter, Curtis Young, Chad Williams and Jay Winter.
About the Curator
Krewasky A. Salter, Ph.D., U.S. Army colonel (retired), is the executive director of the First Division Museum in Wheaton, Illinois. As a guest curator at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, he curated the museum’s inaugural exhibition, “Double Victory: The African American Military Experience.” He holds a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Florida, a Master of Strategic Studies from the Air War University, Maxwell AFB in Alabama and a doctorate from Florida State University. He has taught courses in military history, strategy and leadership at the United States Military Academy, West Point; the Command and General Staff College, Leavenworth; and Howard University. The author of two books, he served as associate producer of the PBS documentary, Unsung Heroes: The Story of America’s Female Patriots.
About the National Museum of African American History and Culture
Since opening Sept. 24, 2016, the National Museum of African American History and Culture has welcomed nearly seven million visitors. Occupying a prominent location next to the Washington Monument on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., the nearly 400,000-square-foot museum is the nation’s largest and most comprehensive cultural destination devoted exclusively to exploring, documenting and showcasing the African American story and its impact on American and world history. For more information about the museum, visit nmaahc.si.edu, follow @NMAAHC on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, or call Smithsonian information at (202) 633-1000.