‘Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow’: National WWI Museum and Memorial

“Dred Scott” (after 1857), an oil on canvas by an unidentified artist, depicts the subject of the 1857 U.S. Supreme Court ruling denying American citizenship to Black people. (New-York Historical Society)

As a child of the 1970s, I spent many hours in front of our small yellow JCPenney television set watching World War II-themed movies such as “In Harm’s Way” and “From Here to Eternity.” Clutching my G.I. Joe action figures, I was excited and invigorated by these tales of patriotism, heroism and adventure.

My father, Harold Smith, Sr., a World War II veteran, had little interest in watching these movies with me and simply did not want to talk about them at all. Looking back, I realize there was sadness whenever I tried to get him to talk about his Army experience in Europe. His discharge papers and medals were not displayed in the home.

They were kept in a box that I didn’t find until after his passing in 1999.

In his later years, when I was an adult, my father shared his experience. He and his brothers all volunteered for military service after Pearl Harbor. They wanted to fight for America and risk their lives for democracy. However, their initial assignments were as servants and butlers for white officers at Fort Leavenworth. Instead of fighting on the battlefields of Europe or the Pacific theater, they shined shoes and chauffeured their superiors around the base.

When they finally were shipped overseas, their assignments were basically custodial and maintenance positions. Despite their willingness, they were denied opportunities to engage in combat.

After the war, my father completed a program in auto mechanics and auto body repair. However, the only job he was offered was pumping gas at a local gas station.

This disgraceful legacy that my father experienced, of rewarding patriotism and dedication with denigration and degradation, is explored in the exhibit “Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow.”

Produced with lead support from the National Endowment for the Humanities and on loan from the New-York Historical Society, this exhibit uses historical artifacts to do a “deep dive” into the Black struggle for full citizenship and racial equality that took place after the Civil War and up to World War I.

One artifact is painfully poignant when the backstory is explored. The French Croix de Guerre medal, France’s highest honor for acts of bravery on the battlefield, was awarded to Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts. Johnson and Roberts, the first Americans to receive this award, were members of the U.S. Army, 369th Regiment. Despite receiving 21 wounds and a shattered foot while rescuing a soldier, Johnson was denied a Purple Heart and disability benefits from the U.S. military. He died 11 years later, destitute and in obscurity, and was buried in a pauper’s grave.

Not all artifacts are directly related to military service. An oil painting from the New-York Historical Society depicts Dred Scott, the subject of the 1857 Supreme Court decision which declared that the U.S. Constitution was not meant to include American citizenship for people of African descent, regardless of whether they were enslaved or free, denying them the same Constitutional rights and privileges enjoyed by whites.

The exhibition is visually, culturally and historically rich.

A set of slave shackles cut from Mary Horn in 1866 is a reminder of the horrifying fact that many Blacks were still subjected to the horrors of slavery for decades after the Emancipation Proclamation.

While a ballot box from 1857 alludes to the fact that Blacks embraced their right to vote during Reconstruction, it also reminds us that once Reconstruction ended, the Jim Crow era began, and these same voting rights were rescinded until the mid-1960s.

A May 1918 “Photograph of young girls from ‘The Crisis,’” a magazine founded by civil rights activist and author W.E.B. Du Bois, draws our attention to the courage and determination of Black Americans in the face of the racial brutality that ruled the era. Given our current times and the challenges ahead, “Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow” is both timely and critical. Rather than an exhibition that is enjoyed and forgotten, it inspires one to further reading, exploration and self-reflection.

“Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow” continues at the National WWI Museum and Memorial, 2 Memorial Dr., through Sept. 18. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. For admission fees and more information, 816.888.8100 or theworldwar.org.

Harold Smith

Harold Smith is an educator and multimedia artist who lives and works in the Kansas City area. Most of his work is focused on his experience within the American black experience.

Leave a Reply