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Kansas City veterans' WWI fight shows democracy is durable — and a work in progress

National WWI Museum and Memorial
A postcard photo of Black soldiers, including John McDowell on front right, taken in 1917 or 1919. For many Black service members, segregation policies in the U.S. at the time followed them into the military.

World War I was cast as an effort to make the world safe for democracy. A photography exhibit at Kansas City's World War I Memorial and Museum shows that was a complicated prospect for the African Americans who served.

Even before the current war in Europe was cast as an effort to make the world safe for self-determination, Americans of all political stripes worried about the health of democracy at home.

A collection of World War I photos housed in Kansas City shows, in beautiful black-and-white detail, another time democracy's durability and promise came into question.

For some of the African Americans in the military during what is sometimes referred to as "the war to end all wars," time serving in France prompted a curious revelation.

“That was the only time I ever felt like that I was a full-fledged American citizen,” Army veteran Robert L. Sweeney said in 1980, decades after the war. “Because (the French) treated the Black soldiers just like they treated the white soldiers — no difference whatever.”

Sweeney was born in Highland, Kansas, and moved to Kansas City after serving in the Army’s 92nd Division, one of two segregated divisions during WWI. Like many other Black service members at the time, Sweeney faced discrimination from white American troops.

But, as is depicted in the National WWI Museum and Memorial’s “Make Way for Democracy!” exhibit, the Black experience of WWI was complex and multifaceted.

“That is part of our job; making sure that the diverse stories of World War I are easily accessible, where people are looking for them,” said the museum's curator of education, Lora Vogt, who helped put the exhibit together more than five years ago.

"We really do strive to be talking about Black history in every month of the year," she said.

More than 367,000 African American troops served in the U.S. military during WWI, and their experiences are often left out of the historical narrative, she said.

National WWI Museum and Memorial
Then-Cpl. Vernon Coffey seated in the sidecar of a military motorcycle. A written description on the back of the photo identifies the other soldier as Virgil McNeal. McNeal and Coffey were both from Kansas City, Missouri.

Among the collection are professionally composed portraits and panoramas; candid photos of people relaxing, attending classes, and playing baseball; and animals like horses, cats and dogs — “there's a lot of pictures of individuals holding animals in World War I,” Vogt said.

The call to fight for democracy

As the war started, many Black communities debated whether to fight in the service of a country that didn’t grant them many basic rights, according to Vogt.

“And yet, when war was declared … basically on the premise of making the world safe for democracy, you have a community of Black Americans … who show this patriotism for a variety of different reasons,” Vogt said. “Including, they wanted to show they were deserving of that full citizenship that they were not yet receiving inside the United States.”

Though African Americans made up only 10% of the country’s population, they comprised 13% of the U.S. armed services during WWI. According to Vogt, 80% of Black troops were assigned a support role in the war, as opposed to a combat role. The rate was 60% for everyone else.

National WWI Museum and Memorial
Though the American military's segregation policies forced 80% of African American servicemen into labor or support roles, the 92nd and 93rd Infantry Divisions saw fierce combat in Europe.

“Some within the United States military had doubts about African American service members,” she said. “We know the incredible heroism of the 369th Regiment, which was the longest serving in the front lines of any of the United States military: 191 days. They were also one of the most decorated units in the United States military.”

Returning, and the 'Red Summer'

When they returned home from war, African Americans in uniform faced some of the most horrific violence in the country’s history, including what’s known as Red Summer, which erupted in 1919 and affected at least 26 cities across the country, according to the museum's website.

At the time, many whites feared the return of tens of thousands of Black veterans, who now had military training. Whites worried these veterans would not resubmit to subjugation in the U.S. The tensions led to mistreatment of and attacks against Black veterans in uniform, a dramatic increase of lynchings from 1918 to 1919, and a revival of the Ku Klux Klan.

But the success of Black Americans in the war also challenged the doctrine of white supremacy, and the shared experiences of Black and white service members helped change attitudes about race.

National WWI Museum and Memorial
A group of U.S. sailors on the USS Malang in dress blues. According to the exhibit, the service of African Americans during the war broke barriers and challenged the heart of racist policies in the military and beyond.

President Harry Truman’s 1948 order to desegregate the military was a move that many U.S. military officers were not anticipating, Vogt said.

“It was (his) experience in World War I that helped motivate this presidential command,” she said.

Changing racial attitudes

In an interview recorded in 1980, Army veteran Clay Ryan recalled the unified message soldiers like him heard from "those top-ranking generals and so forth."

"They’d make speeches from time to time, and they all had the same subject matter, all the time: Make America safe for democracy,” said Ryan. “I do think that the whole movement was well worth what we went through with.”

To preserve and pass down memories and stories like Clay’s, Vogt said, you can’t just depend on history textbooks.

National WWI Museum and Memorial
Four African American soldiers pose with an American flag and a bugle. More than 367,000 African Americans served in the U.S. military during World War I.

“Making an online exhibition means that these digitized objects, these artifacts, are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, anywhere around the world,” she said. “It captures this moment of their lives, you know? Though it's a short moment — a year and a half, maybe, for some of them — it's such an impactful moment.”

As the fight for democracy once again flares up in the U.S. and abroad, this reexamination of a country uniting around common cause provides some hope.

Make Way for Democracy! is online indefinitely at the National WWI Museum and Memorial’s website, theworldwar.org.

As culture editor, I oversee KCUR’s coverage of race, culture, the arts, food and sports. I work with reporters to make sure our stories reflect the fullest view of the place we call home, so listeners and readers feel primed to explore the places, projects and people who make up a vibrant Kansas City. Email me at luke@kcur.org.
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