We Return Fighting: The African American Experience in World War I is opening on December 13, 2019. The exhibition will highlight the experience of African Americans during World War I. It will close on June 14, 2020.
About the Exhibition
The exhibition will immerse visitors into a conversation that examines what fighting in the first global war meant for African Americans. 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.
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
- 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
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
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
- On the Horizon: Planting the Seeds of Progress
A. Philip Randolph
W.E.B Du Bois
Ida B. Wells
Col. Charles Young
Mary Church Terrell
Lt. Charles Hamilton Houston
Oscar De Priest
Discover photographs and items showcasing the many contributions of African Americans during World War I.
About the Book
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, Brittney Cooper, John Morrow, Krewasky Salter, Chad Williams, Jay Winter, and Joseph Zimet.