Fighting for the Right to Fight: African American Experiences in World War II Opened at the Oregon Historical Society

On Friday, July 12, the Oregon Historical Society proudly opened a new special exhibit called Fighting for the Right to Fight: African American Experiences in World War II. Produced by The National WWII Museum, the exhibit features artifacts, photographs, and oral histories that highlight some of the extraordinary achievements and challenges of African Americans during World War II, both overseas and on the Home Front.

In the years before World War II, African Americans in many parts of the country were treated as second-class citizens. The government condoned discriminatory practices and denied African Americans many rights and liberties through laws that kept them in positions of inferiority. Due to the landmark Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision in 1896, the United States was a nation where “separate but equal” was law in many states. In addition, many military leaders declared African Americans unfit to serve in combat. However, once the war began, thousands rushed to enlist, determined to fight for freedom, while still being denied equality at home.

On display through January 12, 2020, Fighting for the Right to Fight illustrates how hopes for securing 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 modern Civil Rights Movement.

“The Oregon Historical Society is very proud to work with The National WWII Museum to ensure that this important and compelling exhibit could be seen and experienced in the Pacific Northwest,” said Oregon Historical Society Executive Director Kerry Tymchuk.

Through myriad interactive experiences, visitors will discover the wartime stories of individual service members who took part in this journey of extraordinary challenge, from unheralded heroes to famous names, including Alex Haley(US Coast Guard); Sammy Davis Jr. (US Army); Benjamin Davis Jr. (US Army Air Forces); Medgar Evers (US Army); and more.

The centerpiece of the exhibit is an original eight-minute video about the famed 332nd Fighter Group (better known as the Tuskegee Airmen), who in many ways became the public focus of African American participation during the war. Television personality Robin Roberts narrates the piece, whose own father flew with the Tuskegee Airmen during the war.

Including personal accounts from members of the 332nd Fighter Group, the video provides an overview of how their success in battle became a great symbol of bravery, helping refute notions that African Americans were inferior performers in the military, especially in roles requiring advanced training. Lieutenant Colonel William Holloman III recalls his leader Colonel Benjamin O. Davis, Jr.’s encouragement: “He said, ‘America’s watching you.’ He instilled in us pride that I don’t think was there before we went in the service.”

Additionally, Fighting for the Right to Fight will feature two medals representing the seven African Americans who were awarded the Medal of Honor in 1997, the bittersweet result of a long investigation by the US military on discriminatory policies in the awarding of combat medals. The exhibit will also provide in-depth coverage of lesser-known events and service, such as that of the USS Mason, the first American ship to have a predominately African American crew.

A national advisory committee, including the late Dr. Clement Alexander Price of Rutgers University, helped frame the exhibition. The committee, led by co-chairs Dr. John Morrow of the University of Georgia and Claudine Brown of the Smithsonian Institution, helped advise on the exhibition’s narrative arc and content. To view artifacts and images from the exhibit, and to access educator resources and lesson plans, visit righttofightexhibit.org.

Fighting for the Right to Fight will be on exhibit July 12, 2019, through January 12, 2020. The Oregon Historical Society’s museum is open seven days a week, Monday – Saturday from 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. and Sunday from 12 p.m. – 5 p.m. Admission is $10, and discounts are available for students, seniors, teachers, and youth. Admission is free every day for OHS members and Multnomah County residents.

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