This exhibition closed on September 6, 2020.

We Return Fighting immerses visitors into a conversation that examines what fighting in the first global war meant for African Americans. 

About the Exhibition

Inside of the We Return Fighting Exhibition

Special Exhibition

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

Interactive Media, Photography, and Luminaries

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.
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Inside of the We Return Fighting Exhibition

World War I Era

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.
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Inside of the We Return Fighting Exhibition

Military and Sociatal Experience

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

African American Women in World War I

The Crisis

It was not just men who heeded Du Bois’s call to fight for democracy. Although they could not enlist, African American women played a crucial role. (Credit: Illustrated by Frank Walts, Gift of Bobbie Ross in memory of Elizabeth Dillard)

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A Closer Look

Curator Krewasky Salter explains the significance of various exhibition objects.

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.

“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.”

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

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.
(Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, A. Philip Randolph Papers)
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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. 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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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. During World War I, she single-handedly stood against the government for the unjust hanging of 24th Infantry African American soldiers at Camp Logan. (Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)
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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 Like the Regular Army Buffalo Soldiers with whom he served for more than 20 years. (Courtesy of National Archives 94-UM-204047)
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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. ( Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division)
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Lt. Charles Hamilton Houston

After graduating from Fort Des Moines, Lt. Charles Hamilton observed and received poor treatment and leadership from white officers and soldiers. In 1919 he became a lawyer, graduating from Harvard in 1923 before going to teach at Howard University. In 1934, Houston challenged Gen. Douglas MacArthur about the prejudice 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)
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Picture of Oscar De Priest

Oscar De Priest

Oscar De Priest was first elected alderman in 1915 before being elected to the U.S. Congress in 1928. De Priest was seen as representing Chicago’s South Side and African Americans nationwide. 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

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 musicals 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.
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Image of Robert Abbott

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

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.

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