A new exhibit at the DuSable Museum of African American History looks at an Illinois National Guard regiment that was deployed in two foreign wars with a full complement of Black officers.
“Clearing a Path for Democracy: Citizen Soldiers of the Eighth Illinois National Guard” tells the story of this unique squadron that was designated the 370th United States Infantry during World War I.
The regiment was awarded more citations than any other American detachment that fought along Europe’s Western Front. In addition, the unit had previously fought bravely with French armed forces beginning in 1918.
Citizen soldiers have served their nation, their states, and their communities throughout American history. National guardsmen are the quintessential citizen soldiers, and the men of the 8th Infantry Illinois National Guard demonstrated the best qualities of this segment of American society.
Part One of the exhibition, which is presented by guest curator Harold “Hari” Jones, opened back in November. Part Two will open in April of 2018.
The first part focuses on the Chicago citizens who organized and led the 8th Regiment and the accomplishments of the regiment before deploying to Europe during World War I. The second part focuses on the distinguished battle record of the 370th Regiment on the Western Front and the legacy of its soldiers and officers.
Curator Hari Jones says, “The story of the 8th Infantry Illinois National Guard reveals the political sophistication of Chicago’s African-American community in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The community stood as a sterling example of what could be done despite racial discrimination.
“In a two-part exhibition, this story will be told, and this story is certain to challenge false images of Americans of African descent too often projected in the nation’s popular culture.”
Significant African-American military contributions have been suppressed throughout American history, especially when those contributions demonstrated noteworthy leadership.
During the Spanish American War and World War I, for example, the 8th Illinois National Guard of Chicago was the only regiment led by African-American officers, and those officers demonstrated tremendous leadership.
But their story was intentionally suppressed in the decades following World War I by American military historians and their martial accomplishments remain unsung. Therefore, their history is now being told at the DuSable through primary sources with a focus on official military records and the soldiers’ voices.
Among the artifacts included in this exhibition are a 1917 combat helmet; a 1917 enlisted uniform; an M1903 rifle; and a Mexican Border Service medal, in addition to photographs, maps and a time-line video.
According to the DuSable’s notes, a Lieutenant J.W. Curtis once wrote that if anyone questions the leadership of the regiment’s officers, they need only “examine her records as kept in the imperishable archives of the War Department.”
Re-designated the 370th Regiment U.S. Infantry during World War I, the unit’s records are also found in French archives because the regiment was attached to a French division.
Given the race barriers in their own country, the soldiers viewed their efforts as making “the world safe for democracy” and “clearing a path for democracy” at home in the United States, says Jones.
Curator Jones is a writer, lecturer, historian, curator and motivational speaker. For 12 years, he was the assistant director and curator at the African-American Civil War Freedom Foundation and Museum in Washington, D.C.
He is currently an independent history consultant who serves on the Board of Directors of the Petersburg National Battlefield Foundation and the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Jones is one of the foremost authorities on the role of African Americans in the Civil War.
One of the oldest independent Black history museums in the nation, DuSable is located at 740 East 56th Place (57th Street and South Cottage Grove Avenue). It is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. and Sunday from noon until 5 p.m.
Admission is $10 for adults ($8 for Chicago residents), $7 for students and senior citizens ($5 for Chicago residents), $3 for children ages 6 through 11 ($2 for Chicago residents), with children 5 years of age and under admitted free. All admission is FREE on Tuesdays.
For more information on this exhibit, visit www.dusablemuseum.org, or call 773/947-0600