They fought to keep our allies free, even as their freedom at home was restricted.
Now, Oregonians from across the metro region can gain a new appreciation of an era when "separate but equal" was the law of the land — as seen through the eyes of African American soldiers, sailors, Marines, pilots and medics serving in segregated units during WWII.
The Oregon Historical Society in Portland is hosting the special new exhibit, "Fighting for the Right to Fight: African American Experiences in World War II," through Jan. 12. It will be open to everyone at no cost on Monday, Nov. 11, a day better known as Veterans Day.
For those attending at other times, admission is regularly $10, with discounts available for students, seniors, teachers and youth. Tickets are always free for OHS members and all Multnomah County residents.
Rachel Randles, director of marketing and communications for the historical society, says that for her the most meaningful part of the show is "seeing the direct connection between all of the veterans and the leaders of the civil rights movement."
"They came home and were shocked at how little things had changed," she explained in an interview at the museum, located downtown at 1200 S.W. Park Ave.
The exhibit was created by The National WWII Museum in New Orleans and has been traveling for a few years. It includes artifacts — such as medals, navigational equipment and uniforms — plus numerous displays, historic photographs, interactive video screens and oral histories. Another highlight is an original short film detailing the famed 332nd Fighter Group.
And while special attention is paid to the Tuskegee Airmen, as they were more commonly called, the retrospective also reports on African American experiences in the U.S. Army, U.S. Navy, Merchant Marine, Army Nurse Corps and U.S. Marines.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt had pushed for desegregation of the Armed Forces prior to the surprise attack at Pearl Harbor that dragged America into the international conflict. According to the exhibit, each branch of the military resisted the orders, which they saw as a "social experiment."
Nearly 1 million African Americans were trained by the U.S. Army during WWII, though most were assigned logistical and noncombat roles in order to send white men to the frontlines.
The USS Mason was the only major American naval war vessel to sail with an African American crew and white officers. The crew later received a letter of commendation for self-repairing serious damage during a major storm in the North Atlantic.
Randles also spotlights a "thought-provoking" portion of the exhibit measuring African American attitudes toward segregated service. A 1943 survey of 7,000 African American soldiers found the respondents split on whether army units should be segregated, with some saying it made no difference and others pushing for integration.
Longtime fans of the Oregon Historical Society will recall the museum's 2015 exhibition of a WWII display that focused on Oregon's role, including the balloon bombs that struck the coast, as well as the massive Kaiser shipyards in Portland that employed about 100,000 workers — churning out more than 700 ships during the war years.
So whether you're a repeat visitor or a newcomer to the Oregon Historical Society, this exhibit is one not to be missed.
"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," noted Oregon Historical Society Executive Director Kerry Tymchuk in a news release.
If You Go
What: "Fighting for the Right to Fight: African American Experiences in World War II"
Where: Oregon Historical Society, 1200 S.W. Park Ave., Portland
When: Through Jan. 12
Cost: Free on Veterans Day, but regular admission is $10.
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