Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow

African American soldiers advancing toward the front in the Argonne Forest northwest of Verdun, France.

Explore the struggle for full citizenship and racial equality that unfolded after the Civil War, and leading into WWI, in the newest exhibition at the National WWI Museum and Memorial, Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow.

When slavery ended in 1865, a period of Reconstruction began (1865-1877), leading to achievements like the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution. By 1868, all persons born in the United States were citizens and equal before the law, but efforts to create an interracial democracy were contested from the start. The promise of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments fell short as state laws chipped away at their guarantees and federal court decisions paved the way for a “separate but equal” America, ushering in the age of Jim Crow. 

In 1917, the United States declared war on Germany and entered World War I. At the time, African Americans made up only 10 percent of the population, but a total of 13 percent of the segregated United States armed services. Though the American military reflected the diversity of its population, the majority of African American soldiers — nearly 80 percent — were organized into supply, construction or other non-combatant units. However, two predominately African American combat divisions were formed that proved the battlefront capabilities of African American troops. Sgt. Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts, both members of the 93rd Division, 369th Infantry Regiment — later known as the Harlem Hellfighters — were the first American recipients of the French Croix de Guerre for bravery. They were not awarded medals from the United States until after their respective deaths.

Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow follows the end of the Civil War to the end of World War I, highlighting the central role played by African Americans in advocating for their rights. It examines the depth and breadth of opposition to Black advancement, including how Jim Crow permeated the North.

The exhibition, on loan from the New-York Historical Society, is curated by Dr. Marci Reaven, New-York Historical’s vice president of history exhibitions, and Lily Wong, associate curator. It was developed in collaboration with New-York Historical Trustee Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr., and Reconstruction-era
scholars Dr. Eric Foner, Dr. Michele Mitchell, and other distinguished historians.

–National WWI Museum and Memorial

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