Library exhibit explores struggle over American identity during WWI

The black-and-white photograph shows four African American soldiers posed beside a solitary grave in the French countryside at the close of World War I. 

An ornamental enclosure surrounds the grave, which is marked by a large decorative cross. It is the burial site of Quentin Roosevelt, a fighter pilot and the son of former President Theodore Roosevelt, one of the fiercest advocates for American involvement in the war. The Germans had buried the younger Roosevelt where his plane had fallen on July 14, 1918. The grave had become a pilgrimage site for American soldiers, who were drawn there by the dead man’s famous name.

A vintage photo of African American soldiers standing by a grave after World War I.
Soldiers pose at the grave of Quentin Roosevelt — the youngest of Theodore Roosevelt’s four sons to serve in France. An aviator, Roosevelt was killed in aerial combat at age 20. His famous name made his grave a pilgrimage site for American servicemen.

The image is featured in “An American and Nothing Else: The Great War and the Battle for National Belonging,” an exhibition that opened on Feb. 12 in the Memorabilia Room at Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library. Curated by Anna Duensing, a third-year Ph.D. student in the Department of History and the Department of African American Studies, the show examines the America’s involvement in World War I from the perspective of the country’s most marginalized residents, particularly African Americans and immigrant communities. 

The exhibit draws on materials — including photographs, posters, pamphlets, and propaganda pieces — housed at Yale University Library’s Manuscripts and Archives Department and the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library. The Beinecke’s Randolph Linsly Simpson African-American Collection, which depicts African American life from the 1850s to the 1940s, was a particularly important resource, Duensing said.

The patriotic fervor surrounding the nation’s war mobilization occurred against a backdrop of protest, racial violence, and nativism on the home front. About one-third of Americans at the time were immigrants or the children of immigrants. Jim Crow controlled the South and the Great Migration of southern blacks to northern cities was underway. It was a period of upheaval and hypocrisy in which the United States proclaimed itself a beacon of freedom and democracy while subjecting many of its own people to injustice and oppression, Duensing said.

A WWI-era U.S. propaganda poster urging the purchase of war bonds by asking ‘Are You 100% American?’
The idea of what constitutes American identity was hotly debated during the WWI era. Leaders like Theodore Roosevelt called on immigrant communities to assimilate, arguing there was no place for “hyphenated Americanism.” Government propaganda couched the war as an opportunity for people to prove they belonged in America.

The First World War in the United States was a period of intense jingoism and tightly policed public patriotism,” she said. “The state’s demands for service and sacrifice were being enforced on a local level. It wasn’t just the state urging you to buy liberty bonds; your neighbor was watching you. These demands were being made at a time when the idea of what it means to be an American — linguistically, culturally, racially — was being hotly debated.”

The show’s title, “An American and Nothing Else,” comes from a 1915 speech by Theodore Roosevelt in which he asserted that the country had no room for “hyphenated Americanism.”

He believed the strength of the United States was contingent upon white supremacy and constant military expansion,” said Duensing, a senior educator at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York City.

She argues that Roosevelt’s jingoistic and chauvinistic rhetoric — which dominated the public discourse during the war mobilization — further marginalized immigrants and blacks even as those communities joined the war effort.

The exhibition begins by looking back. At the onset of WWI, America was about a half-century removed from the Civil War and the abolition of chattel slavery. A 50th-anniversary celebration of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1913 was presented as a moment of unity between North and South. 

I wanted to flag that moment to show that the reconciliation between North and South required the abandonment of the project of black equality,” Duensing said.

A photograph depicting rows of graves at Arlington Cemetery of black soldiers killed on Civil War battlefields provides a reminder that African Americans had a well-established record of military service by the time they were manning European trenches.

Colorful and eye-catching propaganda posters extoll the nation’s virtues and urge its residents to contribute their time, money, and service to the war effort. A series of posters beseeching people to purchase liberty bonds were translated into several foreign languages, proving that while political leaders demanded immigrants assimilate, the federal government remained eager to accept their money, Duensing said.

A U.S. propaganda poster from WWI in Chinese, urging the purchase of war bonds.
By encouraging the voluntary purchase of bonds rather than raising taxes, the federal government could finance the war through citizen investment while also promoting a spirit of national duty and sacrifice. Immigrants were called upon to perform support in this way with campaigns targeting their enclaves and printed in their native tongues. This poster is in Chinese.

The exhibit documents disagreements over the war among African Americans.

A lot of mainstream, liberal black leaders believed that there was promise in supporting the war — or at least publicly backing the war effort. If blacks gave their all, then the country would give them full citizenship,” Duensing said. “There were many black Americans who disagreed and thought the war would just lead to more of the same injustice. Other blacks opposed the war on anti-imperialist grounds.”

The war mobilization was tinged with racial violence and fears among military leaders of a black uprising fomented by German agitators. In November 1917, black soldiers stationed at Fort Logan in Houston rioted following a violent encounter between a black woman and a white police officer.

An expansion of government power, through conscription, surveillance, and censorship characterized the war period.

The federal government gave its blessing to local vigilante groups and patriotic societies to spy on people and suppress dissent,” Duensing said.

A letter on display, which was intercepted by the postmaster in Greenville, South Carolina, is signed by “the Black nation” and warns of a black uprising.

The exhibit devotes significant attention to the experience of black soldiers overseas. Two hundred thousand African American soldiers were shipped to Europe with the U.S. Expeditionary Force and 42,000 of them served in combat.

Many of the black soldiers were relegated to manual labor — digging ditches, hauling supplies, burying the dead. All-black units were largely stripped of their black officers. Others were placed on the front lines under French command where they worried about being used as cannon fodder.

While coping with these indignities, black soldiers found life in France liberating and empowering, Duensing said.

When the soldiers left the United States, they left the world of the color line,” she said. “Black soldiers testified to the fact that while in France they felt like Americans. They felt respected.”

A WWI-era U.S. propaganda poster urging African Americans to enlist in the military captioned “Colored Man is No Slacker”
Many mainstream, liberal black leaders believed that by supporting the war, blacks could earn full citizenship. Others believed, correctly, that little would change. This poster by Edward George Renesch is titled “Colored Man Is No Slacker.”

A series of photos on display show black soldiers in their military uniforms. They carry rifles. They pose on racks of artillery shells. They wear expressions of pride.

An example of sheet music on display shows that racist attitudes endured. Titled “You’ll Find Old Dixieland in France,” the song attempted to celebrate black service, but did so through racist stereotypes.   

The war ended with the signing of the armistice on Nov. 11, 1918. While Americans celebrated the victory, white supremacy and nativism surged as the black soldiers returned home.

The Menace of Foreign Immigration to the U.S.” reads the title of a pamphlet on display that was drafted and circulated by a prominent Oklahoma politician and a leader in the Ku Klux Klan. The Red Summer of 1919 was marked by lynching and racial unrest. The exhibit documents attempts by black advocacy groups, including the NAACP, to report incidents of lynching and fight for anti-lynching legislation.

An NAACP press release on calls attention to the lynching of a discharged black soldier near Star City, Arkansas on Sept. 1, 1919 — the state’s fifth recorded lynching of the year. The organization asked Governor Charles Brough what steps were being taken to apprehend the murderers.

The exhibit closes on a hopeful note, showcasing the work of black journalists, veterans, historians, novelists, and poets that chronicled and celebrated black service in WWI.

Duensing said she hopes the exhibit encourages people to reflect on America in the present day, particularly the harsh rhetoric toward immigrants and African Americans protesting racial injustice. 

This is a centennial reflection, but I want people to think about the ongoing debate over who qualifies as an American. I want them to think about whose lives matter in the United States, and what the state demands of its most marginalized peoples,” she said. “I want people to be thinking about the fact that the debates of 1919 are still happening and that they still matter.”

Duensing praised Kerri Sancomb, the library’s exhibits production manager, and all the members Yale library staff who helped her prepare the exhibit.

They were outstanding and extremely generous with their time,” she said. “I couldn’t have imagined that I’d receive such incredible support.”

An American and Nothing Else” is on view through June 1. Historian Adriane Lentz-Smith, associate professor of history at Duke University and author of “Freedom Struggles: African Americans & World War I,” will deliver a keynote address at 4 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 15 in Sterling Library’s lecture hall, 120 High Street in New Haven. The event is free and open to the public. 

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