Each year during Black History Month, there’s a tendency to focus on a few of the same famous African-American figures we grow up learning about, from the wise Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and courageous Rosa Parks to the determined Frederick Douglas and heroic Harriet Tubman. While they’re each, indeed, extraordinary patriots deserving of celebration, there are many other vital stories to be told—and the National WWI Museum and Memorial is helping to do just that through their online exhibit, Make Way For Democracy!
This one-of-a-kind exhibit walks you back in time and invites you to explore the experiences of the African American men and women who fought for democracy, freedom and civil rights both as soldiers serving overseas and as civilians engaged in the war effort at home. Featuring rare images, documents and objects, it paints a picture of The Great War in colors we don’t often see, and details events and movements that would fundamentally shape our nation and society in the 20th Century.
Want to hear from soldiers in their own words? Listen to World War Oral Histories, a series of recorded accounts of the challenges, triumphs, racism—and hope—African Americans experienced during World War I. And to get a peek at some of the Make Way for Democracy! exhibit’s artifacts, scroll through the slideshow below.
Property of Laurence Rainey, 15th New York National Guard, which became the 369th Infantry
The red of “bloody hand” design of the shoulder sleeve insignia was taken from the French 157th Divisional flag. The 157th was composed of the French 333rd Infantry Regiment and the segregated African American 371st and 372nd Infantry Regiments. The two American regiments were later part of the 93rd Division, which was provisional because it never received its own artillery or service trains.
The Honey Bee Club, a Bible Instruction class, was established in the summer of 1918 in France by the Young Men’s Christian Association to instill spirit and raise the morale of African American labor and service troops, especially those in Graves Registration.
It has the “Fighting Rattlesnakes” or “Black Rattlers” should sleeve insignia. The 369th at first fought attached to French units, so they were initially supplied with French weapons, equipment and helmets. Later American Expeditionary Forces orders changes the helmet and equipment to the standard U.S. issue.
It has the Red Cross armband and postwar “standing buffalo” shoulder sleeve insignia. Units of the 92nd Division were in battle for 17 days. While they used the buffalo insignia, they were not the “Buffalo Soldiers” (the 9th and 10th Cavalry and the 24th and 25th Infantry) of western history fame.