We Return Fighting: World War I and the Shaping of Modern Black Identity is a physically beautiful book. It was published by The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History in 2019. It was a century after black soldiers returned from the war overseas only to fight a different type of battle at home.
One of the ongoing themes in the tome is the fact that black soldiers served the United States, in part, to try to prove yet again their worthiness as citizens. As in most previous conflicts, black soldiers were assigned to segregated units. They were often relegated to support duties rather than direct combat, at least at first. Given the opportunity, though, they often shone as warriors, even underequipped.
Specifically, in WWI, blacks in the military received the respect they deserved from French allies but not their US comrades. This disconnect incentivized them to return to the states and continue the fight for their rights. Black soldiers and black citizens on the home worked to lay the framework for advances in the civil rights movement.
There are scads of photos and illustrations of significant people and artifacts. In other words, it is the history of the black soldier from the Civil War forward. We read also about the horrific Red Summer of 1919 when black veterans were particularly targeted by the Ku Klux Klan and other racist entities. The war and its aftermath shaped African American identity.
An interesting paradox for me: the book discussed World War I broadly far more than I expected or was especially interested in. Yet I learned a great deal about the great world war. Notably, it was the event that first made the United States a world power.
The book appears to be an outgrowth of the We Return Fighting exhibit at the NMAAH that closed on September 6, 2020. But you can still see elements of that show. I am a founding contributor to this museum, and I hope to visit it someday. My daughter, BTW, has been there twice.
Incidentally, there was a 2002 book called We Return Fighting: The Civil Rights Movement in the Jazz Age by Mark Robert Schneider. I have not seen it.
Creating the National Museum of African American History and Culture
I got an email notice in mid-August. Gayle King, from CBS News, and Lonnie Bunch III were going to discuss Bunch’s new book, A Fool’s Errand: Creating the National Museum of African American History and Culture in the Age of Bush, Obama, and Trump.
It would be at the legendary Apollo Theater in New York City, a legendary venue I had never been to. And it was free. On October 1, I took the 12:10 Amtrak train from Albany/Rensselaer down to Penn Station on 34th Street. The #2 subway to me to 96th Street, with the hotel I stayed at less than a block away.
Around 5:30, I decided I’d better leave for the 7:30 gig. I took the subway to 125th Street and walked the block and a half to the Apollo. After purchasing and eating a sausage sandwich from a street vendor, I went to the theater. There was already a line, though it was only 6 pm.
Hey, I have a ticket, so I’ve got time. I wandered around the neighborhood. The percussionists were playing in front of the Adam Clayton Powell Jr. governmental building. 45 minutes later, the line had only grown by about a dozen people.
I got a decent seat on the aisle at about 7. But the show didn’t start until about 7:45 when Gayle King came out on stage. She introduces a three-minute video about the African American museum. Then she introduces the man who, in June 2019, was named the head of ALL the Smithsonian museums, libraries, the National Zoo and more.
Lonnie Bunch III
Lonnie Bunch was born to the Smithsonian. New Jersey-born, his family traveled down to North Carolina to see family. Lonnie’s father made excuses for why they couldn’t stop at some of those Virginia museums. But they stopped in the various Smithsonian museums because they were safe and welcoming places for everyone.
Creating the new museum was a tremendous amount of work for over a decade. It was important to him and others that it be located on the national mall, not plopped in some out-of-the-way geography. He received contradictory advice, that the museum should highlight the holocaust that was slavery, and that he should not mention black bondage in America at all. He opted for inclusion.
Bunch endured a lot of work, not always fruitful. One major company asked for a meeting with him, made him wait for a couple of hours. Then the corporate representative acknowledged that they weren’t REALLY interested in contributing anything. Bunch decided to avoid the newspaper headline, “Smithsonian director punches out executive.”
Even when successful, it was a tough process. To bring in a Jim Crow railroad car was a logistical nightmare; one did not want to blow up DC.
The museum was interested in getting Chuck Berry’s guitar. He was willing to throw in his car too, which Lonnie didn’t get, but his staff did. Berry wanted to renege on the deal when he discovered Bunch worked for the federal government, which he doesn’t trust. But Bunch’s aide sealed the deal when, at Berry’s insistence, he ate 13 ice cream sandwiches.
Miles and miles
Much of what was added to the collection came from items from people’s attics and basements. At someone’s suggestion, Bunch pitched the museum as a sort of African-American Antiques Roadshow, with the “appraised value” measured in historical, not monetary value.
One man in Philadelphia had 33 pieces, mostly previously unknown objects in the life of Harriet Tubman. The guy would punch Bunch every time he offered a piece. How much did the man want for the collection? “Shake my hand and it’s yours.”
The director learned to hate traveling. He made 497 trips in ten years, some for fundraising, others for adding to the collection. He got an eight-dollar shoe shine in Dallas once, and the proprietor said, “Give the money to the museum.” Lonnie objected, but the man said, “Don’t be a jerk.”
Bunch had wanted President Obama to do the ceremonial first shoveling. Obama’s staff insisted that the President “doesn’t do digging.” He actually would have. After that, Barack and Lonnie communicated directly. Obama supported the project, in part because of what it would mean to his two daughters. Lonnie wondered what A Fool’s Errand it would have been had the museum opened in 2017 rather than 2016.
At the dedication, musician George Clinton performed. He was, unsurprisingly, taking an illegal substance. There was a LOT of security around, Lonnie mentioned. But George can’t perform without it. The headline “Smithonian director arrested for drug possession” was somehow avoided.
Open for business
The National Museum of African American History and Culture has been very successful in its three years, with about 8000 people visiting each day, and more on weekends. Though the museum is free, it requires tickets so that people aren’t waiting in the hot sun all day.
The tickets can be hard to get. A woman claimed to be his girlfriend in the 7th grade. He remembers who he liked then – “Joanne!” But it was such a “good lie” that he got the woman tickets anyway.
People see attending as a pilgrimage. About a third of the attendees had never had been to another museum before. There are about 3500 items on display at any time, out of 40,000. Some artifacts go out on loan to other museums. The goal is to “help the country to find itself.”
A woman in the museum told her son about Medgar Evers, the slain civil rights leader. Another woman thanked the mom, who demurred that she was just telling the history. The other woman revealed that she was Medgar’s daughter.
Bunch became good friends with the mother of Emmett Till. After the museum, which holds his remains, she told Lonnie that he needed to carry on Emmett’s legacy; two days later, she died.
An American story
When the museum was completed, Lonnie Bunch III cried. He never wanted to quit, though. There’s a picture of a formerly-enslaved woman holding a hoe that he has in his office. He figures if she can persevere, so could he. As someone put it to him, the goal is to make his ancestors smile.
My goals are two: to buy and read the book A Fool’s Errand, and to visit the museum. For while I’ve been a charter member of the facility, I’ve never been there. My wife has never been there. My daughter has, and she’ll be returning next year; I’m a tad jealous.
President Lincoln gave an address at Gettysburg, which, contrary to his prediction, was greatly noted and long remembered.
After my brother-in-law and his family went to that education rally last month, as did The Wife, we all, including the Daughter, went to the State Museum, one of my favorite places. My wife and her brother took all the kids to the carousel, and his wife and I actually got to see the exhibits.
The pivotal display, one that will also be there until September 22, 2013, was An Irrepressible Conflict: The Empire State in the Civil War. “As the wealthiest and most populous state, the Empire State led all others in supplying men, money, and materiel to the causes of unity and freedom. New York’s experience provides significant insight into the reasons why the war was fought and the meaning that the Civil War holds today.”
The part on the Civil War itself has information on each year of the conflict. The picture above is from the July 1-3, 1863 conflict known as Gettysburg. There were at least 23,000 casualties on each side, with 6,800 coming from New York. Over 3,100 Union and 4,700 Confederate soldiers were killed, with more than 5,000 on each side captured or missing. It was a pivotal, though not decisive, battle in the Civil War.
The third part of the website addresses the Reconstruction.
Almost by instinct, her husband and I started riffing back and forth.
Took the Daughter to the New York State Museum a couple of weekends ago. Actually, it was on a Saturday, since the museum was closed at the time on Sunday, for budgetary reasons, despite the fact that it was the second most popular visiting day. (Happy day: starting September 16, the museum will be open on Sunday, and closed on Monday, the least used day.)
The Daughter and I, in addition to seeing the exhibits, got to ride on the carousel. She rode about four times; I was satisfied with one trek.
We stopped at Discovery Place for kids. The displays noted that the world was hundreds of millions of years old. Given some recent conversation with relatives who believe that the Earth is only 7,000 years old, I was wondering how it would have gone down had we all been visiting this room.
One of the features of the permanent exhibit of the Museum is a subway car, not unlike the one shown here. There was this lovely older couple, who we had seen earlier elsewhere in the museum. She asked if the Daughter had taken dance lessons – she had – because of the way the Daughter moved. He said his wife was a great dance teacher, though she demurred over the description.
Then the woman asked why the train wasn’t moving. Almost by instinct, her husband and I started riffing back and forth: The train’s stopped because the new conductor is late for his shift. He was out drinking last night. But he’s very good at making up time. Though he tends to ride right past scheduled stops. He was late last month too. His supervisor is very understanding.
Though it was her joke that started the dialogue between her husband and me, she becomes quite bemused by it all. How did we know all of this information about the conductor? And how did we start to chat about him, as though we had rehearsed it? Her reaction puzzled me unless she too was acting. Or I thought of a totally different, sadder, scenario, after the fact.
It is in fact located in Philadelphia, not far from Independence Hall. This was deliberate, a reflection of, initially, a “tiny minority [who] sought, defended, and tested freedom—in political affairs, in relations with Christian neighbors, and in their own understanding of what it meant to be Jewish.” Then “the migration of millions of immigrants who came to the United States beginning in the late 19th century and who profoundly reshaped the American Jewish community and the nation as a whole.” “On the Museum’s first floor, the Only in America® Gallery/Hall of Fame illustrates the choices, challenges, and opportunities eighteen Jewish Americans encountered on their path to remarkable achievement.”