FORT LEE, Va. (Feb. 1, 2018) -- A new exhibit – “True Sons of Freedom” – at the Library of Virginia highlights the stories of 20 African-Americans from the state who fought overseas in the Army or Navy.
Using records from the World War I History Commission Collection, library staff created the display of nearly life-size photographs that lets visitors view rich details not seen in the original photo postcards.
“In anticipation of the 100th anniversary of the U.S. involvement in World War I, the Library of Virginia began to re-examine collections that documented the lives of Virginians during the ‘The Great War,’” said Dale Neighbors, the facility’s Virginia Visual Studies Collection coordinator and exhibition curator. “One of the library’s largest World War I archival collections is the Virginia History Commission collection. The commission was established in 1919 by Governor Westmoreland Davis to collect and publish information about the Commonwealth’s participation in the war. The most significant records collected by the commission were the nearly 15,000 questionnaires filled out by returning Virginia servicemen and women.
“African-American World War I veterans from Virginia completed approximately 2,500 questionnaires and included several hundred photographic portraits with their responses,” he continued. “The library decided to design an exhibition that would highlight the lives of some of the African-American Soldiers. The individual portraits caught our attention as compelling visual artifacts from the war identifying the breadth and depth of experiences of black Soldiers, but also as representations of a larger set of images of lives and histories too often overlooked.”
After the war, these photographs were submitted by veterans along with responses to military service questionnaires created by the commission to capture the scope of Virginians’ participation there, according to a press release from the Library of Virginia announcing the exhibit.
“True Sons of Freedom” doesn’t aim to provide a comprehensive history of the African American experience in World War I, said Neighbors.
“This exhibit encourages visitors to explore how profoundly diverse the wartime black experience was in Virginia, through the photographic portraits and biographies of 20 ordinary participants in the Great War,” he said. “African-American troops who served in World War I often carried their communities’ ambitions and expectations with them. Although many of them following the war returned to their prewar patterns of living, I think the most compelling stories are of those veterans like James Preston Spencer who brought home a new international perspective and a renewed resolve in the struggle for African American freedom and citizenship.”
The exhibit has been planned for about a year, said Neighbors, and he and his team have been working on the display for a while in preparation.
“(These displays) require an incredible amount of teamwork and planning, not only with item selection, but with research and interpretation, graphic design, online components, related events and programming, lighting, marketing, and much more,” he said. “Photo exhibitions like “True Sons of Freedom” are often easier to install, but the process from concept to completion is as involved as any other exhibition.”
The display will be featured at the library through Nov. 9. The library is located at 800 East Broad St., Richmond. Admission is free.
Additionally, a website – www.virginiamemory.com/truesons – has been created that shows all 140 photographs from African-American troops and an online component will allow viewers to add comments and information they may have about the men.
“Many of the photographic portraits may be unknown to descendants of the Soldiers, so I’m hoping we’ll be able to connect with families and enhance the exhibition through additional biographical information and images that could be displayed alongside the wartime portraits,” said Neighbors.