New exhibit shows how African-Americans returned from WWI only to a fight a war at home

Michael E Ruane

Monday, March 10, 1919

“We all got up early this morning because we are going to see the coloured boys parade. These are the first soldiers back that really fought on the firing line. The parade was fine…Mother, Aunt Sadie…and myself went.”

The diary of African-American teenager Jessie Greer, of Cincinnati, captured the moment when two “negro contingents,” as the local newspaper put it, came home to Ohio from World War I. It portrayed a proud but fleeting time, experienced by tens of thousands of black soldiers across the country.

Along Main Streets and Central Avenues, they marched in full kit, as bystanders cheered and waved flags, only to find that their war for freedom abroad had been replaced by one for freedom at home.

Greer’s diary, a snapshot from that story, is on display in a moving new exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, entitled We Return Fighting: World War I and the Shaping of Black Identity.

The exhibit chronicles the black experience before, during and after World War I, and tells how the war opened a new front in the struggle for equality that echoes to today.

The museum’s interim director Spencer Crew and a banner that hung at the NAACP’s headquarters. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

The war presented African-Americans “with the opportunity to challenge the reign of white supremacy in this country, and they took it,” professor of history at the University of Georgia who helped introduce a preview of the exhibit John Morrow Jr said last Thursday.

He noted that 400,000 African-Americans served in the war – 42,000 of them in combat.

In a secluded corner of the exhibit space is a grim photograph of about a dozen men from the black 368th infantry regiment killed in the Meuse-Argonne offensive that helped end the war in 1918.

Lined up for burial, they lay with their feet sticking out from under blankets. (The gruesome job of retrieving and burying the dead was handled by the predominately black Graves Registration Service.)

The exhibit tells of the Harlem Hellfighters of New York, the crack 369th United States (US) Infantry Regiment, which spent 191 days in the trenches. The outfit fought with the French army and “amassed the greatest combat record of any comparable unit in the American Expeditionary forces,” Morrow said.

One of the fighters, the diminutive Henry Johnson, fought off a German patrol so savagely one night in 1918 that he became known as “Black Death.”

But badly wounded and crippled, he did not receive full recognition for almost a century, and was posthumously given the Medal of Honor, then the nation’s top award for valour, only in 2015.

The regiment’s pioneering band was also famous. Headed by Lietenant James Reese Europe, the band greeted American troops landing in Brest, France, by playing La Marseillaise, the French national anthem, in ragtime, said Curtis Young, a France-based scholar and expert on the regiment.

But there’s also a photograph of a white sergeant refusing two black soldiers admittance to a troop train carrying white troops. The sergeant’s arm is a blur as he waves the two men away.

Overlooking all of the artefacts are walls of haunting photographs of black soldiers and black women and nurses.

Men pose at attention in uniform, holding a rifle or with their arms crossed. Many wear medals on their tunics. In one picture, two buddies sit in chairs, their legs crossed, chairs tilted back.

In another, two men pose stiffly, standing beside a small table.

In another, a man in uniform sits in a chair, while a woman in a white blouse and long dark skirt stands beside him.

They are timeless portraits of men and women and look as if they had once hung in living rooms or stood on mantels.

“You can see the pride that emanates” from them, Morrow said as he walked among the photographs, “They are standing there, proud.

They have fought for their country and served their country.”

But the country they came home to was toxic with racism, violence and segregation.

The parade of black soldiers that Greer, the Cincinnati teenager, saw was reported on the back page of the local paper.

“Children…lined the sidewalks along Central Avenue to Fourth Street and the dusky warriors marched between them as they waved their little flags in welcome to the members of their race who had fought for their country,” the Cincinnati Enquirer reported.

Morrow said many black soldiers came home in the bloody Red Summer of 1919, “when white mobs, vigilantes, including national guardsmen and policemen, invaded black neighbourhoods in 50 cities across the US, burning black neighbourhoods to the ground and murdering their inhabitants.”

Black soldiers were not exempt. Twelve black soldiers in uniform were lynched in the South, Morrow said.

Among the most striking artefacts in the exhibit are two iconic pieces of fabric that illustrate the new war that was now underway.

One is the grim black and white banner that hung from the headquarters of the NAACP in New York City every time a person was lynched between 1920 to 1938. Like a battle cry, it called attention to the ongoing anti-black terrorism, and said in huge letters: “A Man Was Lynched Yesterday.” (The banner, on loan from the Library of Congress, is so iconic that it is under the watch of a security guard.)