A new exhibit will share the lives and experiences of African-American Prince George’s County residents who participated in World War I. The exhibit, “We Return Fighting: World War I and the African-American Experience”, is at Harmony Hall in Fort Washington until March 9. It offers information, artifacts and photos that portray the involvement of African-Americans in the war both at home and the years surrounding it.
The exhibit’s curator, Dr. Dennis Doster, is the Black History Program Manager for Prince George’s County Department of Parks and Recreation, under the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. Doster, with the help of program assistants, worked on the project for over a year.
“The national theme for Black History Month this year is African-Americans in times of war,” Doster said. “This exhibit goes along with that, especially since last year and this year marks the centennial of U.S. involvement in World War. So that’s how we got to what we did this year, and with everything that we do we always try to include the local Prince George’s County Maryland element in it, so you’ll see that sprinkled throughout the exhibit.”
Doster said that before the war, the African-American population in Prince George’s county was different than what it was today. “Today, you think of Prince George’s county as, you know, majority Black,” Doster told the AFRO. “During this time in 1910, only about 11,000 residents were living in the county and 3,500 residents were Black. So, about a third of the county was Black whereas today about 65 percent are Black. We were the minority during that time and, of course, this was during the time of Jim Crow so there’s general information about what African-Americans were experiencing in terms of segregation and discrimination during this time and some specific information about Maryland and the D.C. region.”
Doster said about 400,000 African-Americans served in World War I and about half of that number served overseas. Out of the total African-Americans serving across the country during this time, more than 11,000 African-Americans from Maryland served in the military and close to 500 men from Prince George’s county. The exhibit features, “A Wall of Valor” listing the names of men who served.
In the section, African-American Deaths in the War, the names of four black soldiers who died were listed. Three died during battle and one died on a torpedoed ship. The section included a telegram informing the family of John H. Seaburn Jr.’s death. He’s the only Black person whose name is on the Peace Cross, a World War I monument in Bladensburg honoring veterans of World War I from Prince George’s county.
The final section of the exhibit, Life After the War, highlights returning veterans. When veterans returned, they expected their treatment in the U.S. would change. It did not, but Doster noted that influenced them to fight even more for their rights. “They realized that little had changed and so in that period right after they returned home, in that summer of 1919, race riots are wrapped all over the country,” Doster said.
The section also highlights World War I veterans that made an impact in the region like native Washingtonian, Charles Hamilton Houston. “He very specifically in his writings talks about how World War I galvanized him to do more to fight for Black rights,” Doster said. “He eventually becomes known as “The Man Who Killed Jim Crow” because of his efforts working as a lawyer for the NAACP. He becomes a dean at Howard Law School and he’s one of the mentors to Thurgood Marshall. So, he’s very actively involved in fighting for Civil Rights and that is partly influenced by his World War I experience.”
Doster emphasized that although the U.S. involvement during World War I was short, it was one of the most important wars that people know nothing about. “It had a huge impact on how the U.S. operated in the world and how the people viewed the U.S,” Doster said. “The U.S. really catapulted into being a superpower during that time period.”
Artura Jackson, program assistant, spoke about how the war was important for African-Americans. “I think World War I is definitely a forgotten war and so us doing this and working on this project really pays homage to what they did because African Americans have served in every war, but this is the first modern war that they fought in and they did it happily and willingly,” Jackson told the AFRO.
Doster finds it important for Prince George’s residents to come out and visit the exhibit to not only learn from the past, but to honor our ancestors. “Honoring our local history is always important and there’s also something being said about knowing the history in our backyard and knowing the specific history of people around us,” Doster said. “So those are the stories that we tell, that they don’t tell, so it’s important for us to acknowledge that.”