Irving Archives & Museum recently opened a new special exhibit called “Fighting for the Right to Fight: African American Experiences in World War II.” On display through April 14, 2023, the exhibit illustrates how hopes for securing equality inspired many to enlist, the discouraging reality of the segregated non-combat roles given to black recruits, and the continuing fight for “double victory” that laid the groundwork for the modern Civil Rights Movement.
Produced by The National WWII Museum, the exhibit features artifacts, photographs and oral histories to highlight some of the extraordinary achievements and challenges of African Americans during World War II, both overseas and on the Home Front.
In the years before World War II, African Americans in many parts of the country were treated as second-class citizens. Discriminatory practices were condoned by the government, and African Americans were systematically denied many rights and liberties by laws that kept them in positions of inferiority.
Due to the landmark Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision in 1896, the United States was a nation where “separate but equal” was law in many states. In addition, many military leaders declared African Americans unfit to serve in combat. However, once the war began, thousands rushed to enlist, determined to fight for freedom, while still being denied equality at home.
Through a myriad of interactive experiences, visitors will discover the wartime stories of individual service members who took part in this journey of extraordinary challenge, from unheralded heroes to famous names, including Alex Haley (US Coast Guard); Sammy Davis Jr. (US Army); Benjamin Davis, Jr. (US Army Air Forces); Medgar Evers (US Army) and more.
The centerpiece of the exhibit is an original eight-minute video about the famed 332nd Fighter Group (better known as the Tuskegee Airmen), who in many ways became the public focus of African American participation during the war. The piece is narrated by television personality Robin Roberts, whose own father flew with the Tuskegee Airmen during the war.
Including personal accounts from members of the 332nd Fighter Group, the video provides an overview of how their success in battle became a great symbol of bravery, helping refute notions that African Americans were inferior performers in the military, especially in roles requiring advanced training.
The exhibit will feature two medals representing the seven African Americans who were awarded the Medal of Honor in 1997, the bittersweet result of a long investigation by the US military on discriminatory policies in the awarding of combat medals. The exhibit will also provide in-depth coverage of lesser-known events and service, such as that of the USS Mason, the first American ship to have a predominately African American crew.
Lieutenant Colonel William Holloman III recalls his leader Colonel Benjamin O. Davis, Jr.’s encouragement: “He said, ‘America’s watching you.’ He instilled in us a pride that I don’t think was there before we went in the service.”
A national advisory committee, including the late Dr. Clement Alexander Price of Rutgers University, was commissioned to help frame the exhibition. The committee, led by co-chairs Dr. John Morrow of the University of Georgia and Claudine Brown of the Smithsonian Institution, helped advise on the exhibition’s narrative arc and content.
Advisory Committee for the exhibit includes Co-chair Dr. John Morrow, History Department Chair, University of Georgia, Co-chair, Assistant Secretary for Education and Access, Claudine Brown, Smithsonian Institution, Dr. Dan Haulman Chief, Organizational History Division, Air Force Historical Research Agency, Dr. Clement Alexander Price (deceased) Former Director of the Institute on Ethnicity, Culture, and the Modern Experience, Rutgers University, Dr. Raphael Cassimere Professor Emeritus, Department of History, University of New Orleans, and Dr. Charles Teamer Director Emeritus, The Amistad Research Center, Tulane University.
Irving Archives and Museum (IAM) excites visitors with its permanent exhibition on the history of Irving, temporary exhibitions and a Smithsonian Spark!Lab where adults and children alike create, collaborate, explore, test, experiment, and invent.
Also housed at IAM is the city’s archives, allowing the discovery of Irving’s history through access to documents, photographs, maps, films, and more. The National WWII Museum tells the story of the American experience in the war that changed the world – why it was fought, how it was won, and what it means today – so that future generations will know the price of freedom, and be inspired by what they learn. Dedicated in 2000 as The National D-Day Museum and now designated by Congress as America’s National WWII Museum, it celebrates the American Spirit, the teamwork, optimism, courage and sacrifices of the men and women who fought on the battlefront and served on the Home Front.
For more information and for a scheduling of upcoming events, visit nationalww2museum.org.