World War I: The African American Experience

with Krewasky Salter, Ph.D., of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Nearly 400,000 African Americans served in World War I — decades prior to the height of America’s civil rights movement.

Krewasky Salter, Ph.D., of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture delves into the history behind a new exhibit that honors the contributions of African Americans on and off the battlefield.

Posted on:

Jul 02, 2020

Hosted by: Paul Lisnek
Produced by: National Newsmakers Team

Lisnek: World War I was a transformative global conflict that had a significant impact on the nation and, indeed, the world. Millions of Americans served in the Armed Forces during the war, including some 400,000 African-Americans. Hi, welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I'm Paul Lisnek. While all who served were impacted by the war, the African-American experience changed lives, contributing to the birth of the Harlem Renaissance and the Civil Rights and labor movements. A new exhibit at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History & Culture highlights that experience. Joining me is Dr. Krewasky Salter. He's the guest curator of "We Return Fighting: The African American Experience in World War I." Doctor, and I will say Colonel, because you, indeed, are a a retired U.S. Colonel. Sir, thank you for your service. Dr.

Salter: Thank you.

Lisnek: When soldiers returned home from World War I, specifically, African-American soldiers, they did not come home to a country of equality and fairness -- they found segregation. Dr.

Salter: That's true, and that's why we named the exhibition "We Return Fighting," because, after fighting overseas, they came back home, and they continued to fight because they came back to an America in 1919 that was, for them, the same America that they left in 1917, after the President said, "We must make the world safe for democracy." And yet, you come back to your own homeland, and the country is not safe for you.

Lisnek: So, years later, this exhibit gets created, and I'm sort of curious -- the purpose behind creating the exhibit -- is it about remembering back, highlighting those days, creating a new appreciation of the service of Americans at that time? Dr.

Salter: It's all of the above. You know, looking back at history, because history informs the present and the future. So we also want to make sure that, today, we can look at the experiences of World War I and how people throughout the globe, but, certainly, African-Americans used World War I to make the future better for African-Americans.

Lisnek: And people who experience this exhibit will notice that there are nine African-Americans that get focused. I want to talk about some of them with you. But, first, let me ask you, what were the criteria that got used to select it? Because let's -- there's lots of people you could pick from, and you found these nine. Dr.

Salter: It was an extremely tough decision -- matter of fact, an exhibition has metrics. So, initially, I was told I could have seven. Eventually, I did get nine.

Lisnek: You fought for more. Dr.

Salter: I fought for more, and we got nine. And what we wanted -- we wanted to have a cross-section of America. So we wanted to have people that represented it, or had a representation in each segment of America. Of the nine, six are men -- three are women. Of the nine, seven are civilian, and two are soldiers. And so people can come into the exhibition, and I believe every individual can see themselves in one, two of those individuals.

Lisnek: And as I reviewed the nine, I thought to myself, you know, "Are there some here who seem to have an impact sort of before the World War conflict begin, some during the war..." Dr.

Salter: Right.

Lisnek: "...and some afterwards?" Dr.

Salter: Exactly.

Lisnek: Let me bring up a few, if I may. Dr.

Salter: Okay.

Lisnek: Ida B. Wells, of course, and I bring that up because Chicago is a home for you and for me. Dr.

Salter: Right, right.

Lisnek: And, of course, one of the main thoroughfares in Chicago just got named for Ida B. Wells. Dr.

Salter: Yes, exactly.

Lisnek: Talk about her importance. Dr.

Salter: Yeah, Ida B. Wells was important because she became an activist after witnessing a lynching up close. A friend of hers was lynched in 1892, a gentleman named Thomas Moss. And from that point on, she dedicated her life to documenting the horrors that were inflicted upon African-Americans. And so, today, we would not know a lot of what we know about lynching had it not been for Ida B. Wells. and to be a woman of that period and to be brave enough to go out and document this and speak out about this -- and we also selected her because she continues her crusade during World War I. There was the Camp Logan Riot... in 1917. And, eventually, 19 soldiers went to the gallows, and she was one of the individuals who stood firm from the beginning to end, speaking out against that travesty.

Lisnek: When I take you into the war, one of the soldiers, but who had such a major impact... Dr.

Salter: Right.

Lisnek: ...was Charles Hamilton Houston. Dr.

Salter: Right.

Lisnek: But his impact clearly goes beyond the war. But talk about him. Dr.

Salter: Exactly. So, Charles Hamilton Houston -- and as you mentioned, we have three sections of the exhibition -- before, during, and after. We have three luminaries in each section. And Charles Hamilton Houston is in the World War I section. And most people, when they hear me say "Charles Hamilton Houston" -- he's a lawyer -- that is what 98%, if not more, of Americans know him as. But he was a World War I officer. He was a soldier. He served in the 368th Regiment overseas. And because of his experience in the war, he made his father's dream come true. His father was a lawyer, always wanted him to be a lawyer. And because of his treatment in the war, he came back, applied to How-- correction -- Harvard Law School. And, eventually, he went on to be the dean at Howard, and he is the architect of Howard Law School, which train about 1/3 of the lawyers of African descent who were in America in the 1940s, to include Thurgood Marshall

Lisnek: Yeah, one of the great Supreme Court justices, likely of all time. Dr.

Salter: Right.

Lisnek: And, also, making Howard an accredited law school -- so important today. Dr.

Salter: Exactly.

Lisnek: When I take you after the war, it was an interesting pick to see that Josephine Baker, who many people think of as an entertainer and all that she did, but she played a key role. Dr.

Salter: Yeah. And you hit the nail on the head -- she was an entertainer. As I said before, we wanted to make sure that everyone who comes to this exhibition may be able to see themselves. And so Josephine Baker is one of the individuals that we luminate in the Post-War section. And, of course, she went to France in 1925 and became an international sensation. But as a young girl during the war, she was from East St. Louis, so she also experienced that horrific riot in East St. Louis in 1917, that we also interpret -- not only in the exhibition, but throughout the museum. And she is one of the women that was at the 1963 march and actually spoke at the march.

Lisnek: And known for her adoption of kids from all over the world... Dr.

Salter: Exactly.

Lisnek: ...creating what was known as the Rainbow Tribe -- an amazing woman. Dr.

Salter: Right, yes.

Lisnek: Krewasky, people that want to know more about this exhibit -- where can they find it? Dr.

Salter: The National Museum of African American History and Culture website and a lot of information is on the website. But we also wrote a companion book. And so you can go to and a few other book stores and order the book. And the big difference in the book is that the exhibition has a shelf life. But if you buy the book, it can sit on your shelf forever.

Lisnek: All right, Krewasky Salter. Thank you so much for your work, Colonel, Doctor.

Salter: Okay.

Lisnek: ...congratulations on all the work that you do. Dr.

Salter: Okay, alright.

Lisnek: I appreciate it. And thanks to you for watching, as well. If you want more information, more great conversations with leaders in your community, across our country, go to I'm Paul Lisnek. Thanks for watching.

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