We Return Fighting: The African American Experience in World War I

Courtesy of The National Museum of African American History and Culture

By Angela Hickey

The Smithsonian Museum’s new exhibit, We Return Fighting: The African American Experience in World War I explores and highlights the overlooked role that African Americans played in World War I. This open and free exhibit depicts the lives of African Americans who fought valiantly and risked their lives in order to fight for our country. 

The exhibit officially opened on December 13, 2019. We Return Fighting:The African American Experience in World War I fills more than 4,000 square feet of space with never-before-seen photographs, original uniforms and weapons, historic film footage, and interactive features. 

The exhibit itself is categorized and organized into three sections: before the war, during the war, and after the war. Containing about 26 themes, nine multimedia pieces, a photography gallery, and an interactive engagement. Anchored in nine African American historical luminary personalities, this exhibit covers nearly all aspects of the African American experience during World War I. 

The museum developed the exhibition in collaboration with Mission du centenaire de la Première Guerre mondiale, a public interest group created in 2012 by the French Government to prepare and implement the commemorative program for the First World War. This organization, based in France, was created to research the impact of World War I through the lens of the African American experience and to commemorate the end of the war. 

This immersive exhibit reveals to visitors what fighting in World War I truly meant for African Americans. Mainly depicting the life experiences of African Americans during the World War I era. This exhibit offers an inclusive experience focusing on the social, cultural, political, economic and intellectual lives of African Americans before, during and after World War I.

African Americans assumed that by helping in the war they would also help in securing democracy as well as their own level of security in that democracy. With this movement came a new sub-group of African Americans, the “New Negro”, who aggressively pursued new racial attitudes, ideals, and cultural expressions, as well as highlighting the lives of prominent figures in this new movement, such as W.E.B DuBois and Ida B. Wells. 

With the exhibit also comes a companion book of the same name written by the National Museum of African American History and edited by Kinshasha Holman Conwill, Deputy Director for National Museum of African American History and Culture. 

The exhibit depicted many artifacts, medals, and photographs alongside powerful essays highlighting the actions and efforts of African Americans during World War I. Additionally, it discusses how many African American soldiers were assigned to all African American units, effectively segregating them from other soldiers, and keeping them assigned to mostly labor and support duties as opposed to actual combat. 

Open and completely free to the public this exhibit will be here only for a limited time. Tickets are not needed and it’s available to the general public during the museum’s normal operating hoursIt is currently located in the museum’s Special Exhibitions Gallery and is set to close June 14, 2020.

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