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Fighting for the Right to Fight

Updated: Aug 15, 2023

Exhibit tells story of African Americans in WW II

7/16/2019, 1: 46 p.m.

A photo from a new traveling exhibit at the Oregon Historical Society called ‘Fighting for the Right to Fight: African American Experiences in World War II,’ shows the all-black World War II era U.S. Army 41st Engineers, assembled for a color guard ceremony at Ft. Bragg, N.C. Photo courtesy National Archives.

In the years leading up to World War II, racial segregation and discrimination were part of the daily life of 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.

School children protest the treatment of African American teachers in Norfolk, Va., in June 1939. The photo is part of a new exhibit of African American experiences from the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, now showing at the Oregon Historical Society, downtown through Jan. 12. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

A new traveling exhibit at the Oregon Historical Society tells the important stories of the thousands of African Americans who enlisted during the war. From the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, “Fighting for the Right to Fight: African American Experiences in World War II, opened Friday with a reception attended by black veterans and officials of the museum, and runs through Jan. 12. The exhibit includes oral histories, profile panels and artifacts.

The centerpiece of the show 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.

The presentation also examines how new hopes of equality collided with a 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.

Visitors discover the wartime stories of individual services 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. (US Army Air Forces); Medgar Evers (U.S. Army); and more.

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