Omaha’s Durham Museum shares African Americans’ stories from fighting on the battlefield to fighting for civil rights
Imagine fighting for a country where you had no rights – you couldn’t vote, travel where you wanted, dine or have a drink with friends at a place of your choosing. That was life for many people of color, specifically African Americans, before the Civil Rights Act removed many of the barriers in the 1960s.
Omaha’s Durham Museum’s “Fighting for the Right to Fight: African American Experiences in WWII” focuses on life before, during and after World War II. The exhibit, which runs through July 15, uses photos, artifacts and interviews to highlight the challenges that people faced and the successes they enjoyed.
Visitors should plan to spend up to 90 minutes studying the exhibits. Start in the prewar section and follow the experiences African Americans endured. The exhibit shares remnants from the days of segregation, such as signs separating African Americans from their Caucasian counterparts and an application to join the Ku Klux Klan.
“The exhibit tells a powerful story,” said Jessica Brummer, Durham’s Director of Marketing and Public Relations. “It was a great opportunity to open it during Black History Month.”
As men enlisted in the Army – several volunteered, while many were drafted – they came from across the United States for military training, often at southern bases. This was their first taste of segregation – separate water fountains, rest rooms, barracks, and chow halls. Soldiers’ letters share thoughts about life in another area of the country.
Lack of government support
The federal government didn’t believe African Americans could function or be trusted in battle, so most people were assigned support roles.
However, once near the front, soldiers of all colors fought in battle. Rothacker Smith was captured along with two buddies following a fire fight in Italy in 1944. He spent the rest of the war as a Prisoner of War. A shirt stained with dried blood, shrapnel from his body, as well as a prisoner ID tag and a broken spoon help tell his story.
Women served alongside their brethren. Alberta Holt was one of the few African American women allowed to serve as nurses. Because of a racist system, less than 500 of 50,000 women working as nurses were African American – less than one percent. She served with the 25th Station Hospital, the first black nursing unit deployed overseas.
Probably the best-known group of African Americans to serve are the Tuskegee Airmen. Deemed by the government incapable of being able to fight, the pilots primarily served in Italy and north Africa. However, they were dispatched to provide security for bombers headed to Berlin. When they encountered German jet fighters, the Tuskegee Airmen became the first Americans to shoot down a Nazi plane over Berlin. An eight-minute video of the Airmen is narrated by Robin Roberts of ABC News, whose father was a member of the pilot group.
The first African American enlisted as a Marine in 1942. By the end of the war, almost 20,000 African Americans comprised less than 5 percent of the US Marine Corps. African Americans also served in the Navy, Army Air Force and Merchant Marine.
Meanwhile back at home, African Americans worked alongside their white counterparts in support roles, such as working in military plants, building planes, tanks and more. But, when their day ended, they went to their homes in another section of town, unable to stop off at the local bar and have a quick drink with colleagues. Or see a movie with them. Or even get to vote in the elections. While African Americans fought for the world’s freedom, their family and friends still enjoyed no rights at home.
As African American leadership and heroism helped the Allies win the war, they weren’t recognized for it. It took until 1997 when President Bill Clinton awarded seven men the Medal of Honor for their actions during World War II. In 1993, the Pentagon started an inquiry into why no African American had been awarded the medal for their heroism during World War II. The seven men are included as part of the exhibit.
As the men and women returned home following the war, nothing had changed. Signs for “Coloreds” and “Whites” still separated men and women who served the same country. However, African Americans were no longer accepting the racism and discrimination. People who had served on the battlefield took up signs and started protesting for equality. Soldiers who once marched on Italian and African soil were now marching in front of the United States Capitol and White House. They laid the foundation for the Civil Rights Movement.
“Fighting for the Right to Fight” started its national tour at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana.
We wholeheartedly recommend visiting this exhibit. The history it tells is one Americans need to understand. For more information on the exhibit and activities included with it, please visit Durham’s website at www.durhammuseum.org.