Fighting for the Right to Fight: African American Experiences in World War II

Wartime color guard ceremony of the 41st Engineers at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina. Courtesy National Archives.

July 12 – January 12, 2020

  • Family-friendly
  • Free for Members
  • Researchers
  • Teachers
  • Handicap Accessible Friendly

Location:
Oregon Historical Society
1200 SW Park Ave
Portland, Oregon 97205
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In the years leading up to World War II, racial segregation and discrimination were part of daily life for many in the United States. For most African Americans, even the most basic rights and services were fragmented or denied altogether. To be black was to know the limits of freedom — excluded from the opportunity, equality, and justice on which the country was founded.

Yet, once World War II began, thousands of African Americans rushed to enlist, intent on serving the nation that treated them as second-class citizens. They were determined to fight to preserve the freedom that they themselves had been denied. This is their story.

Schoolchildren protesting treatment of African American teachers in Norfolk, Virginia, June 1939. Courtesy Library of Congress.

Fighting for the Right to Fight begins with an overview of America in the 1920s — at the height of the Ku Klux Klan’s power — where segregation and discrimination were part of daily life for African Americans. Discriminatory practices were condoned and even codified by the government. Many military leaders declared African Americans unfit to serve in combat. Yet once World War II began, thousands of African Americans rushed to enlist, intent on serving the country that treated them as second-class citizens; determined to fight for the freedom that they themselves had been denied. This exhibit examines how hopes of equality inspired many to enlist, the discouraging reality of the segregated noncombat roles given to black recruits, and the continuing fight for “Double Victory” that laid the groundwork for the Civil Rights Movement.

Through oral histories, profile panels, and artifacts, visitors discover the wartime stories of individual service members who took part in this extraordinary challenge, from unheralded heroes to famous names — including Alex Haley, author of Roots (U.S. Coast Guard); Benjamin Davis, Jr. (U.S. Army Air Forces); Medgar Evers (U.S. Army); and more.

The centerpiece of the exhibit is an original eight-minute video about the Tuskegee Airmen, who in many ways became the focus of African American participation during the war. The piece is narrated by TV personality Robin Roberts, whose own father flew with the Tuskegee Airmen during the war.

PRESENTED BY

NATIONAL TOURING SPONSOR

Associate

  • C.M. Bishop Jr. Family Fund of the Oregon Community Foundation

MEDIA