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World War I museum tells the stories of forgotten African-Americans who served their country

Gen. John J. Pershing reviews African-American troops at Is-Sur-Tille in France. The photo is part of “Make Way for Democracy,” an online-only exhibit of 100 photos that recognize African-Americans’ contributions in World War I.
Gen. John J. Pershing reviews African-American troops at Is-Sur-Tille in France. The photo is part of “Make Way for Democracy,” an online-only exhibit of 100 photos that recognize African-Americans’ contributions in World War I. National World War I Museum and Memorial

While contemplating an exhibit to celebrate Black History Month at the National World War I Museum and Memorial, education curator Lora Vogt examined some key moments in American history.

She soon realized World War I represented the midway point between the Emancipation Proclamation, which was issued in the 1860s, and the Civil Rights Act, which was signed in the 1960s.

The result: “Make Way for Democracy,” an engaging online retrospective that honors the contribution of African-Americans during World War I. It can be viewed at www.theworldwar.org.

“We’ve been collecting the artifacts of African-American men and women who took part in this time frame,” Vogt says. “It’s not just those who served in active duty, it’s the men and women behind the scenes. The women who are knitting for their soldiers or who are raising funds.”

Although the museum regularly earns top ratings from travel sites and Yelp and Trip Advisor, “Make Way for Democracy” presents a solution for international audiences who aren’t able to make the journey to Kansas City.

“A digital exhibition is our opportunity to engage visitors from around the world,” Vogt says. “We’ve got the most globally diverse content and archive of any in the world. This allows us to take that content and place it out for world consumption.”

So far, visitors from 150 countries have perused the museum’s online collection.

“Clearly there is an interest from every inhabited continent in the stories we have to tell right here in Kansas City,” she says.

The museum partnered with the Google Cultural Institute to create “Make Way for Democracy.” The tech giant is working with 50 organizations to generate content celebrating Black History Month.

The most challenging aspect of assembling the collection proved to be whittling it down to 100 images from the thousands the museum possesses. But the history is often misleading because there were times when African-Americans were intentionally excluded from photographs, regardless of their wartime contributions.

She points to the 93rd Division in particular, a segregated unit of the U.S. Army activated in 1917. The members of the combat unit weren’t even given the opportunity to walk in the Armistice parade in Paris.

“Probably one of the greatest exports of the United States during World War I is jazz. It’s because of World War I and the 93rd Division that jazz went to France, specifically thanks to James Reese Europe, who was the slammingest composer at the time,” she says of the musician who also served in the infantry regiment known as the “Harlem Hellfighters.”

Vogt, who has been with the museum since 2011, says there are a vast number of people in the photos whose names have been lost to history. She hopes that with the number of international eyes on the material, crowdsourcing could lead to a deeper recognition of these figures.

“As I was pulling up the images, they’re like half the size of your phone,” the St. Louis native recalls. “But then when you get it onto your screen, you can really see their faces, and then the human experience comes alive. … They have a whole story, a whole lifetime to tell us.

“I’m really thrilled the globe is going to be looking at these faces.”

Online

Visit the exhibit at www.theworldwar.org.

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