By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer

Colin Powell, one of the top-ranking Black military men in the nation’s history, visited the National World War I Museum and Memorial in 2008. Powell, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and onetime U.S. Secretary of State, here receives a tour from curator Doran Cart. Powell passed away in 2021. Courtesy of the National WWI Museum and Memorial.

Different soil, different toil.

The contributions of African American servicemen are being recognized as the National World War I Museum and Memorial continues its effort to tell “the bigger picture” of U.S. military history.

“It was a real dichotomy because American involvement in World War I was always said to be ‘America fighting to make the world safe for democracy,’” said Doran Cart, curator of the Kansas City, Missouri-based museum. Back at home, however, African Americans weren’t benefiting from that democracy.

“The service that was provided by African Americans, both on the homefront, which was immense, and on the battlefront was without parallel,” Cart continued. “It was their war, it was their country; they just weren’t treated like that. That, to me, has always been the worst part of it. The sacrifices that were made and the contributions that were made for a long time were not really, truly recognized.”

Since opening a century ago, the museum, which boasts being home to the world’s most comprehensive collection of WWI objects, has worked to change that. Cart said the government wasn’t particularly good at keeping records and photos that told the story of African American participation in WWI. Still and video images, he said, came about more incidentally. “If they needed a particular story, or whatever, then you find the images from that,” he said.

The museum a few years ago acquired the first poster to feature people of color. Taken in 1918, it captured some of the Stevedore battalions that served in France.

Cart said the museum always has been committed to presenting a representative portrait of who was involved in the war despite difficulty procuring items. That commitment, he said, dates to immediately after the armistice with Germany on Nov. 11, 1918, ended the war.

“(The museum founders) included the Black community, the Black leaders and religious groups in the fundraising and in the determination of what the memorial was going to be like, and who it would represent,” Cart said. “It was one of the few places where the African American soldiers were actually recognized.”

The museum recently vowed to further broaden its collection and expand efforts to procure archival documents, materials and objects. Cart’s excitement for new discoveries was palpable in his sharing a tale of finding letters written by a man named Grant McClellan to his wife. The letters revealed something unknown to Cart even after years of studying WWI.

“He was assigned to the 92nd Division, but when he got overseas, they were assigned to an all-white unit, the 28th Division, to go over the top,” he said. “We had no idea about the mixing of American units like that.”

A recent find included letters from a Black soldier only identified as “Wayne.” In the letter to his family, dated Sept. 6, 1918, the soldier, stationed at Camp Lee Virginia, details a nearby riot between whites and Blacks that he estimated to have ended in 60 people being killed.

Material comes to the museum from various sources from across the country and abroad, as many Black soldiers settled elsewhere, refusing to return to the racism and segregation of America. Cart said, however, that it is clear much has been lost because not much was recorded and what was, wasn’t diligently saved. So staff often rely on families — now the great grandchildren and even great-great grandchildren — of servicemembers to donate items. A relative of Black WWI hero Henry Johnson donated a program from the ceremony in which he was presented with a posthumous Medal of Honor by the nation’s first Black president, Barack Obama, in 2015.

If there has been a silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic and its forced shutdowns and shelter-in-place orders, it’s that people have had the time to look through old family records and go through their closets and storage spaces, Cart said.

COVID also has led to the museum’s digitizing of its collection to preserve and present items in new and exciting ways. The museum put together online exhibits during the pandemic that people worldwide can visit online. It also collaborates and has partnerships with other museums and historical groups.

Soldiers marching abroad to help expand knowledge of African American participation in and contributions to U.S. military history. Courtesy of the National WWI Museum and Memorial.

“Before COVID we worked with the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History culture on an exhibit that they were putting together as a temporary exhibit of the return of the soldiers from the war,” Cart shared. “We were able to loan them lots of materials from our collection.”

They often work with their Kansas City neighbor, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. Many future Negro Leagues stars played on military teams in WWI, Cart said.

He also looked forward to a traveling exhibition, “Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow,” on loan from the New York Historical Society, scheduled to open at the WWI museum in late May and running throughout summer.

Knowledge is power, Cart said.

“In World War I, the first Americans who went overseas and landed in France were African American sailors,” he said. “The way they were regarded in France was so much different than in the United States.”

The national museum gets worldwide visitors including military buffs and brass. Lou Gossett, Jr., who famously won an Oscar for his role in the film “An Officer and A Gentleman,” visits frequently and serves on the museum’s board of directors. Cart recalled taking the late former Secretary of State Colin Powell on a tour in 2008.

“We were walking around and about halfway through he said, ‘Well, you’ve got it right. You’ve got the logistics right.’ That was his thing — if you support an army, you’ll have an army. He couldn’t have told me anything better.”