The likenesses and narratives of two dozen African-American Virginian veterans displayed now at the Library of Virginia, men born to former slaves, prove that America has not always been the land of the free, but it has indeed been the home of the brave.
"True Sons of Freedom" is an exhibition of images captured nearly a century ago, of 24 black men from various parts of the commonwealth who served in World War I. The photos show men who, though they were second-class citizens in their homeland, defended America with their lives on foreign soil.
"Many of these men were farmers or rural laborers in their civilian lives," says Library of Virginia exhibitions coordinator Barbara Batson. "They were living in the thick of the Jim Crow era, but they served their country, and they had individual identities."
The exhibition was conceptualized by the library's visual studies collection coordinator, Dale Neighbors, Batson says. Neighbors and Batson gleaned photos of the men as well as biographical details from military service questionnaire surveys sent to veterans black and white after World War I. They answered questions about their place of birth, their parents, their religion, their education and occupation, and their racial background.
"The categories [for race] they could choose from were white, negro, Indian or mongoloid," says Batson, whose team confirmed details on the self-reported surveys by researching birth, death, marriage and military records, as well as digital tools such ancestry.com.
When they turned in their surveys to the government, the veterans submitted photos of themselves in uniform.
"For many of them, it was likely the first time they had been photographed," Batson says. "What we see in the photos is what the men wanted us to see." Living in a fully segregated society rampant with racial discrimination, these men exercised agency in how they represented themselves through the questions and the camera lens, an agency that was largely impossible for them to exercise in most other areas of their lives.
In the life-sized, gray-scale photos hung in the library's downstairs gallery, the eyes of the men are haunting. A corner of the American flag hangs behind Petersburg-born Jasper Rudolph Jackson's shoulders, which are squared as Jackson stares confidently into the camera. With a fat cigar nestled between his fingers and one boot-clad foot crossed over his knee, Jackson's bearing signals his pride. "Jackson later reported he liked his military service," the mounted text next to his photo reads. Jackson also sent in a photo of himself in civilian dress, wearing a sharply starched collar and suit jacket. In both photos Jackson stares straight and steady into the camera, unsmiling.
The photos were hung higher at first, Batson says. "But we brought them down to eye level, because we wanted people to look at these men face-to-face, so to speak." This vantage reinforces the veterans' identities and builds a human connection, encouraging viewers to peer deeper into their lives and stories, Batson says. "You cannot ignore them when you're looking them in the eye."
The title of the exhibition is a nod to a 1918 poster by Charles Gustrine, depicting black soldiers in the throes of battle, the American flag flapping in the background and President Abraham Lincoln gazing at the fray. Both the poster and Library of Virginia's exhibition acknowledge the contributions of 350,000 African-American soldiers who fought in World War I.
On display since January and closing Nov. 9, the exhibition has uncovered local family ties to the long-dead veterans like James Preston Spencer, Batson says.
Spencer was born in Charlotte County in 1888, and graduated from both high school and the forerunner institution of Virginia State University before enlisting in 1917. During combat in France, he was wounded by machine gun fire and returned to Virginia. Spencer went on to become an educator in Chesterfield County. On his postwar questionnaire, he wrote that his military experience made him "mentally more alert to political [and] social problems of the day." Spencer's niece and cousin have viewed his photo and his words in the exhibition, says Batson says.
A traveling version of the exhibition will go on display at the Manassas Museum in northern Virginia this December, Batson says. The showing will make several more stops around the state; check truesons.virginiamemory.com for details and dates. S
"True Sons of Virginia" is on display at the Library of Virginia through Nov. 9.