We Return Fighting

The African American Experience in World War I

We Return Fighting immerses visitors into a conversation that examines what fighting in the first global war meant for African Americans. This exhibition closed on September 6, 2020.

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About the Exhibition

Inside of the We Return Fighting Exhibition
01/04

We Return Fighting is a 4,200 sq. ft. temporary exhibition at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. This exhibition closed on September 6, 2020.
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Inside of the We Return Fighting Exhibition
02/04

The exhibition has three sections, 26 themes, nine media pieces, a photography gallery, and an interactive engagement, anchored in nine African American historical luminary personalities.
View WWI collection items
Inside of the We Return Fighting Exhibition
03/04

The exhibition mainly interprets life experiences of African Americans during the World War I era (1913 to 1920)—with interpretations spanning from 1865 to 1963.
View WWI collection items
Inside of the We Return Fighting Exhibition
04/04

Though the foundation of the exhibition is the African American military experience from 1917 to 1919, the exhibition mainly offers an inclusive non-military experience focusing on the social, cultural, political, economic and intellectual lives of African Americans before, during and after World War I.
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World War I was a transformative international conflict that had a significant impact on the nation and world. People were determined to change the pre-war status quo within their respective regions of the world. For African Americans, WWI represented the next major opportunity to reassert post-Civil War expectations of full citizenship. They assumed that participating in a war to help make the world safe for democracy would in turn help them achieve their own level of democracy. However, they returned to an unchanged America. As a result of the status quo, African Americans gave birth to the “New Negro”, who aggressively pursued new racial attitudes, ideals, and cultural expressions.

An African American Gold Star Pilgrim visiting her loved one's gravesite

An African American Gold Star Pilgrim visiting her loved one's gravesite.

National Archives (92-GS-092)

Journey Through the Exhibition

 

Wartime Storylines

The exhibition begins with a discussion highlighting six of the African American luminaries’ responses to President Woodrow Wilson’s call that “The World Must be Made Safe For Democracy” during his pre-declaration of war speech on April 2, 1917. Among those luminaries in this discussion (and highlighted in the first section) are W.E.B. Du Bois, A. Philip Randolph and Ida B. Wells. Key to the debate are Du Bois, who called for African Americans to support the war, and Randolph, who encouraged them to refrain from supporting the war. A pre-war (first) section then spans from the end of the American Civil War (1865) to the American entry into World War I (April 6, 1917). This section immerses visitors into the lives of African Americans by addressing several storylines such as military service, separate but equal, mob violence and lynching, and the rise of the NAACP. A transition sub-section interprets the global war so that visitors can grasp the essential concept of  “World War” and especially its impact on the black Diaspora experience.

Pre-war Exhibition Topics

Democracy Denied

  • We Return Fighting
  • Democracy Denied

The Dawn of War

  • The Dawn of War: Segregation, Servitude, and Mob Violence
  • Black Life at the Dawn of War
  • African Americans in the Military
  • Closing Ranks
  • Niagara to NAACP

A Global War

  • A Global War: The World in Conflict
  • The World at War
  • The French Experience
  • African Diaspora
  • The U.S. Enters the War

The main (second) section of the exhibition interprets the war years at home and abroad. This centerpiece section has many more storylines and a photo gallery with more than 140 individual images and introduces visitors to the significant contributions black men and women made to World War I. The storylines include home front stories, such as “Women Shaping the World,” “The Great Migration” and military service. Also included are overseas stories about the battlefield experiences of soldiers—one specifically on the treatment of black officers—about Services of Supply (SOS) soldiers, the “Horrors of War,” “Coping on the War Front,” and “Two Colored Women” overseas. A concentrated story about “The 369th Infantry Regiment,” better known as the Harlem Hellfighters, is also a focus of this section. Luminaries Charles Young, Mary Church Terrell and Charles Hamilton Houston are highlighted in this section.

During the War Exhibition Topics

At War: Over There and At Home

  • Americans at War: Over There and At Home
  • Soldiers and Sailors Photo Gallery
  • Soldier Photo Gallery: Camaraderie
  • Soldier Photo Gallery: Family Support
  • The War at Home: Paradox of Service
  • Women Shaping the World
  • Flight to the North
  • The War Over There: On the Battlefield
  • African American Women Overseas
  • Coping on the War Front
  • Shelter Half
  • Services of Supply (SOS) Troops
  • The 92nd and 93rd Infantry Divisions
  • Horrors of War
  • The 369th Infantry Regiment

*SPECIAL ONLINE ADDITION: Read an essay by Lisa M. Budreau about Gold Star Mothers.

The final (third) section of the exhibition has several more storylines focusing on post-war interpretations. Just as the Great War had transformed much of the world, African Americans had been transformed as well. The interpretations within this section begin by exploring the awards and initial excitement associated with returning heroic black soldiers and the cordial welcome they first received, which quickly turned into the Red Summer, which included more than three-dozen race riots in American cities. As African Americans realized that President Wilson’s notion of “democracy” did not extend to them, they evolved a collective will to fight back against mob violence rather than turn the other cheek. This assertive spirit was personified in “The New Negro,” whose political thought and creativity are a significant theme within the post-war section. Two additional luminaries included in this section are Chicago Defender editor Robert Abbott and politician Oscar De Priest. Another significant theme, “Paris Noir,” highlights the impact of African American culture on French culture before, during, but mainly after the war. Luminary and cultural entertainer Josephine Baker and personalities such as writer Langston Hughes and veteran Eugene J. Bullard are interpreted. The exhibition culminates with a theme titled “On The Horizon” which reintroduces three of the luminary personalities—Mary Church Terrell, A. Philip Randolph and Josephine Baker. Their World War I experiences, and those of other African Americans and the foundations they helped to lay, are linked to the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. In fact, Randolph and Baker, who each had a significant impact during the World War I era, were in Washington, DC, on August 28, 1963.

Post-War Exhibition Topics

After the War: At Home and Abroad

  • After the War: At Home and Abroad
  • Valor (Decoration) and Service Medals
  • We Return Fighting — Red Summer
  • Riots

The New Negro

  • The New Negro
  • Pan-Africanism and Global Racism
  • Negro Renaissance
  • Negro Renaissance Abroad: Paris Noir

Fighting to Be Remembered

  • Fighting to Be Remembered
  • Commemoration
  • On the Horizon: Planting the Seeds of Progress

 


A Closer Look

Curator Krewasky Salter explains the significance of various exhibition objects.
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Mobocracy vs. Democracy: A Pictorial Protest

This staged image poetically speaks volumes. Note the commissioned officer captain’s uniform and items, such as the pistol, but more importantly, the body language and expression of defiant disbelief.
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“A Man Was Lynched Yesterday"

As a result of the war years, the NAACP became the strongest civil rights organization capable of fighting against post-war prejudice and discrimination. ...For eighteen years, it boldly flew a huge flag over its New York headquarters stating, “A Man Was Lynched Yesterday.”
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African American Women Overseas

Addie W. Hunton, Kathryn M. Johnson, and Helen Curtis were the only three known black women the U.S. government officially permitted to travel to France during the war. While there, they ran YMCA canteens and leave stations catering to African American soldiers.

Exhibition Luminaries

01/09

A. Philip Randolph

During World War I, A. Philip Randolph represented African Americans who encouraged others to stay home and fight for democracy in America. Randolph and those who shared his sentiments justified their stance against supporting a foreign war by simply pointing to the continued violence and discrimination directed toward African Americans. In the November 1917 issue of The Messenger, the magazine he co-founded with Chandler Owen, they criticized African American leaders such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Kelly Miller, and William Pickens whom they considered the “Old Crowd,” or old-fashioned thinkers. (Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, A. Philip Randolph Papers)
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02/09

W.E.B Du Bois

World War I tested the meanings of citizenship, patriotism, and loyalty for all Americans, W. E. B. Du Bois included. At the start of and throughout the war, he encouraged African Americans to support the war. He expressed his sentiments in the July 1918 issue of The Crisis magazine and would later write, “I became during the World War nearer to feeling myself a real and full American.” Because of Du Bois, most African Americans eventually supported the war. Shortly after the war ended and the reality of democracy denied to African Americans set in, Du Bois took a completely contrary viewpoint, writing, “We Return Fighting." ( Courtesy of Special Collections and University Archives, W. E. B. Du Bois Library, University of Massachusetts Amherst)
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03/09

Ida B. Wells

Ida B. Wells became an ancillary victim of lynching when her friend Thomas Moss, a law-abiding African American Memphis businessman, was lynched in 1892 after a jealous white competitor forced him out of business. Thereafter, Wells began fighting against mob violence and “lynching, our national crime.” During World War I, she single-handedly stood against the government for the unjust hanging of 24th Infantry African American soldiers at Camp Logan. She went on a one-woman crusade to ensure those soldiers would not be forgotten. Without Wells, much of our knowledge about the crime of lynching would have been lost. ( Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)
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04/09

Col. Charles Young

During the summer of 1917, West Point graduate Col. Charles Young, the highest-ranking African American Regular Army officer, was forced into retirement because of a medical condition. Many African Americans and white supporters felt this act was the government’s way of ensuring he would not be allowed to lead troops during the war, maintaining his colonel rank and thereby becoming eligible for promotion to general officer. Like the Regular Army Buffalo Soldiers with whom he served for more than 20 years, Young was denied his desire to serve his country as a combat officer and reach his full potential. (Courtesy of National Archives 94-UM-204047)
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05/09

Mary Church Terrell

Mary Church Terrell was a self-described dignified agitator. In 1895 she co-founded and became the first president of the National Association of Colored Women. When President Theodore Roosevelt dishonorably discharged 167 African American soldiers of the 25th Infantry in Brownsville, Texas, in 1906, she went to Secretary of War William Taft’s office demanding justice in a “proper, dignified” manner. Appropriately titling her book A Colored Woman in a White World, Terrell wrote, “A white woman has only one handicap to overcome—that of sex. I have two—both sex and race. ... Colored men have only one—that of race. ( Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division)
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06/09

Lt. Charles Hamilton Houston

After graduating from Fort Des Moines, Lt. Charles Hamilton Houston trained at Fort Meade and was assigned as a field artillery officer with the 368th Infantry Regiment. At Fort Meade and in France, he observed and received poor treatment and leadership from white officers and soldiers. Houston used that terrible experience to ensure that future generations would not suffer the same indignities. In 1919 he decided to become a lawyer, graduating from Harvard in 1923 before going to teach at Howard University. In 1934, Houston challenged Gen. Douglas MacArthur about the prejudice that existed in the military and the lack of Regular Army officer slots for African Americans. (Courtesy of the Moreland-Spingarn Research Center, Manuscript Division Howard University, Washington, DC)
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Picture of Oscar De Priest
07/09

Oscar De Priest

Originally from Alabama, Oscar De Priest moved to Chicago in 1899. He was first elected alderman in 1915 before being elected to the U.S. Congress in 1928. The first northern African American elected to Congress and the only one of his time, De Priest was seen as representing Chicago’s South Side and African Americans nationwide. His platform included pushing for federal aid for black schools, ending employment discrimination in the federal government, and passing an anti-lynching bill. De Priest nominated African Americans to West Point for the first time since the 1880s. One of his nominees, Benjamin O. Davis Jr., eventually became the first black Air Force general in 1954. (Chicago History Museum, ICHi-018381; R. D. Jones, photographer)
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Image of Josephine Baker
08/09

Josephine Baker

As a young girl, Josephine Baker survived the 1917 East St. Louis riots. She went on to perform vaudeville shows during her early teens in St. Louis before moving to New York in 1921. She secured roles in the musicals Shuffle Along and The Chocolate Dandies and performed at the Plantation Club before moving to Paris in 1925. In the black expatriate community of Montmartre, Baker gained prominence singing and dancing in La Revue Nègreand La Folie du Jour. Her whimsical dances and exotic costumes enthralled large, enthusiastic audiences. As her international acclaim in theater and movies grew, Baker opened her own cabaret, Chez Josephine, and crafted a sophisticated style and public image.
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Image of Robert Abbott
09/09

Robert Abbott

Robert Abbott, born in 1870, founded The Chicago Defender in 1905 and made it into one of the most influential and largest circulated black newspapers during the World War I era. Abbott wanted African Americans to be informed about job opportunities and social justices. Through TheDefender, he encouraged African Americans to leave the Jim Crow South for better opportunities in the North. Abbott set several goals for his newspaper, including “full enfranchisement of all American citizens.”
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Exhibition Objects

Distinguished Service Cross and ribbon issued to Lewis Broadus, Awarded 1906; issued 2006

Distinguished Service Cross and ribbon issued to Lewis Broadus, Awarded 1906; issued 2006

U.S. World War I Victory medal issued to Cpl. Lawrence Leslie McVey, 1919-40

U.S. World War I Victory medal issued to Cpl. Lawrence Leslie McVey, 1919-40

Purple Heart medal issued to Cpl. Lawrence Leslie McVey, 1932-40

Purple Heart medal issued to Cpl. Lawrence Leslie McVey, 1932-40

Small box respirator, 1917-18

Small box respirator, 1917-18

Entrenching tool, 1914-18

Entrenching tool, 1914-18

Bullet casing trench art sculpture, 1914-18

Bullet casing trench art sculpture, 1914-18

French Adrian Helmet, 1915-26

French Adrian Helmet, 1915-26

French Army canteen, 1914-18

French Army canteen, 1914-18

Presentation saber and scabbard used by Colonel Charles Young, 1914-22

Presentation saber and scabbard used by Colonel Charles Young, 1914-22

Sweetheart pendant with portrait of a soldier, 1917-19

Sweetheart pendant with portrait of a soldier, 1917-19

Nénette and Rintintin Dolls, 1914-17

Nénette and Rintintin Dolls, 1914-17

French Senegalese Tirailleur Uniform, ca. 1915

French Senegalese Tirailleur Uniform, ca. 1915

“Madagascar” Souvenir Plate, date unknown

“Madagascar” Souvenir Plate, date unknown

Prosthesis for forearm, date unknown

Prosthesis for forearm, date unknown

Black Shame coin, 1920

Black Shame coin, 1920

Distinguished Service Cross and ribbon issued to Lewis Broadus, Awarded 1906; issued 2006
U.S. World War I Victory medal issued to Cpl. Lawrence Leslie McVey, 1919-40
Purple Heart medal issued to Cpl. Lawrence Leslie McVey, 1932-40
Small box respirator, 1917-18
Entrenching tool, 1914-18
Bullet casing trench art sculpture, 1914-18
French Adrian Helmet, 1915-26
French Army canteen, 1914-18
Presentation saber and scabbard used by Colonel Charles Young, 1914-22
Sweetheart pendant with portrait of a soldier, 1917-19
Nénette and Rintintin Dolls, 1914-17
French Senegalese Tirailleur Uniform, ca. 1915
“Madagascar” Souvenir Plate, date unknown
Prosthesis for forearm, date unknown
Black Shame coin, 1920

About the Book

A richly illustrated commemoration of African Americans' roles in World War I highlighting how the wartime experience reshaped their lives and their communities after they returned home. This stunning book presents artifacts, medals, and photographs alongside powerful essays that together highlight the efforts of African Americans during World War I. As in many previous wars, black soldiers served the United States during the war, but they were assigned to segregated units and often relegated to labor and support duties rather than direct combat.

We Return Fighting reminds readers not only of the central role of African American soldiers in the war that first made their country a world power. It also reveals the way the conflict shaped African American identity and lent fuel to their longstanding efforts to demand full civil rights and to stake their place in the country's cultural and political landscape.

The book contains essays by renowned writers, historians, and scholars including Lisa Budreau, Kinshasha Holman-Conwill, Brittney Cooper, John Morrow, Krewasky Salter, Chad Williams, Jay Winter, and Joseph Zimet.