WWI Museum calls on Black families to donate artifacts from war
By Ryan Whirty
via the Louisiana Weekly newspaper web site
In a 1980 oral history interview, African-American Army veteran Robert L. Sweeney related his experiences during World War I while serving in France as a supply clerk with the 317th Sanitation Train of the 92nd Army Division.
Sweeney recalled that, unlike white American citizens in the United States, the French treated him and his fellow Black soldiers equally, a situation symbolized by the ability of the servicemen’s ability to mix with white women in France.
Sweeney said such equitable, open-minded treatment gave Black soldiers a sense of dignity that was denied them back home.
“When the French people welcomed us with open arms, that is the only time that I ever realized what a real American soldier was,” Sweeney said in the interview. “The French people had no prejudice what[so]ever. Negro soldiers fraternized with the French girls just like the white soldiers did.…we had some trouble with those white boys from the South…But that was the only time we had any trouble with the white soldiers.”
Sweeney’s narrative is one of thousands of interviews, documents, personal diaries and letters, photos, uniform items and other artifacts archived at the National World War I Museum in Kansas City, which has launched an ongoing project to diversify its collections by calling on family members or other people related to Black World War I soldiers to donate their loved ones’ treasured items from the war. The armed conflict ran from 1914-1918, the last year or so of which included American troops of all ethnicities serving overseas.
Museum representatives hope that by collecting such materials, the institution can further document, chronicle and tell the stories of soldiers of color on the front lines and behind the scenes, as well as the millions of African Americans stateside who contributed to the war effort through work in industries, fundraising activities and volunteer services.
The museum’s initiative is also soliciting and archiving materials from World War I belonging to Indigenous Americans and women.
“The museum has always been very committed to collecting objects and archival material of African Americans, both in service and on the homefront, from all nations involved in the war,” said Doran Cart, the senior curator for the museum. “It’s one of the areas of interest in making sure we’re always enhancing our collection.”
Cart said the collection initiative began before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic when museum board members took the lead and cultivated contacts and sources of materials in the local area and across the country.
Since then, museum representatives have been successful in collecting archival materials of people of color, especially from folks who are stuck at home because of the pandemic and have had the opportunity to uncover artifacts while exploring their attics and storage spaces.
Cart said that about 370,000 Black men were called to service through the draft and volunteering, with about 150,000 of them going overseas for the war effort. In addition, millions of people of color contributed at home, including by filling industry jobs that had been previously unavailable to them because of racist hiring policies.
“African Americans were well represented, both on the battlefield and the homefront,” Cart said.
Read the entire article on the Louisiana Weekly web site.
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