During segregation, African-American service members fought for freedoms they didn’t have themselves while serving our country. World War I and World War II had a double meaning for some black soldiers who helped save lives and made history.
They fought overseas for America’s freedom while struggling for civil rights in America. Now black servicemembers are among those honored at the National African-American History and Culture Museum in Washington D.C.
Curator Krewasky Salter said the exhibit “Double Victory” shares stories of the two battles facing black troops during segregation.
“They were willing to fight for their country. They were not only fighting for themselves but for equality for their community and equality for a great America,” said Krewasky.
At the time, opportunities for African-Americans were extremely limited both in society and in the military. Photos and artifacts at the museum help to introduce visitors to barrier breakers like Charles Young, the third African-American to graduate from West Point in 1889, and Benjamin O. Davis Senior the first African-American general in the United States military. Despite discrimination, the two men were among the few black servicemembers to rise through the ranks.
World War I galvanized the black community to serve, in an effort to make America achieve true democracy.
“If you served, you earned citizenship, freedom, equality,” said Salter.
By WWII, the number of blacks enlisted or drafted rose significantly. Salter said leaving rural areas in the south to serve overseas had a unique impact on black soldiers.
“When they got overseas in France, the French people welcomed them with open arms. They were treated with a level of equality that they had never received back home,” Salter explained. “So that caused some American soldiers not to come back to America; they stayed in Europe and became ex-patriates.”
Charles Hamilton Houston was among those who did return to the U.S. The first lieutenant went to Harvard and became a key player in the fight for civil rights, helping to dismantle Jim Crow laws and mentor future leaders.
“He fought overseas in the 92nd Division and came back to an America that was not what he was promised,” said Salter. “So he became a lawyer and he is one of those individuals who taught Thurgood Marshall and we know what he went on to do.” Marshall was the first African-American Supreme Court Justice.
Another veteran who returned from Europe to the Civil Rights battle at home was Medgar Evers. Evers was an activist and the first field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He paid the ultimate sacrifice.
“He survived WWII only to be assassinated in his driveway in 1963,” said Salter.
Evers, along with Benjamin O. Davis Senior and Charles Young, are among veterans buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Salter said it’s important to tell their stories today, so people don’t forget all the things African-Americans fought for abroad and at home.