"THE TRUE BIRTH OF THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT": RARE PANORAMIC PHOTOGRAPH OF WWII BLACK SOLDIERS OF THE 318TH COMBAT ENGINEERS
(BLACK HISTORY). Photograph, Panoramic. Fort Bragg, North Carolina: circa 1943. Gelatin silver print (measures 8 by 33-1/2 inches); matted and framed, entire piece measures 34-1/2 by 13 inches. $3400.
Exceptional panoramic photograph of WWII Black soldiers of the 318th Combat Engineers, who served in the segregated 93rd Infantry Division that fought in the Pacific, returning home as war's end to a surge in racist riots and lynchings.
WWII plunged the U.S. into a global conflict as well as a challenge to its systematic "mechanism of race… one contributing factor was the significant participation of Blacks" in the war. "Nearly 1,200,000 Blacks were inducted or enlisted in the armed forces," only to face segregation in their service as well as in "combat housing, hospitals and on leave" (Robinson, Black Movements, 129). Many Black leaders "compared the Nazi racial policies of Hitler to racism in the American South" and young Black men voiced deep reservations about "the Jim Crow practices of the War Department and the branches of the armed forces." The men in this panoramic photographic portrait were at the heart of that moment in history. They are soldiers in Company A of the 318th Engineer Battalion, which was in the 25th Combat Team of the 93rd Infantry Division—the segregated African American unit of the U.S. Army in WWII. These Black servicemen trained at Fort Huachuca, Arizona where, "throughout much of fall and winter months of 1942 and 1943, members of the division's 318th Combat Engineering Battalion participated in demolition, road and bridge construction, field fortification, and tactical assault training exercises" (Jefferson, Fighting for Hope, 34-81). As pictured here, Black soldiers served under white southern officers "whose positions stemmed partly from the War Department's belief that southern white officers possessed far better leadership qualifications to command Black troops than did northern white and Black cadres." Ordered to the Pacific in early 1944, the 318th Combat Engineers in the 93rd Infantry continued to register their discontent as "army officials struggled to promote the image of a racially harmonious military while maintaining the army's discriminatory practices." The 93rd Infantry "disembarked at several points in the South Pacific before being assigned mainly to the Russells (Banika), Vella Lavella, Guadalcanal, and New Georgia" (Jefferson, 84-90, 158).
Returning home after their service, Black veterans faced murderous race riots and lynchings. In the first six weeks of 1946 alone, Birmingham's police force under Bull Connor "killed five Black military veterans" (Robinson, 129-34). They were attacked and many killed "when they sought to exercise the very freedoms for which they had fought. 'Every effort was made to make this absolutely clear… the war has changed nothing in regard to race relations,' says Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Leon Litwack. 'What [hostile white communities] failed to note: Black Americans are no longer willing to take it'… Medgar Evers, whose murder would later galvanize the Civil Rights movement, began his activism in 1946, when he and his brother Charles returned from military service and organized a voter-registration drive in Mississippi." Black veterans made, "in Litwack's words, 'the true birth of the Civil Rights Movement'" (Smithsonian). Photographic studio imprint on the verso: "LaPerla Studio." This photograph was most likely taken at Fort Bragg in 1943. The 39th Combat Engineers is discussed and pictured in a book titled, Field Artillery Replacement Training Center, Fort Bragg Second Anniversary.
In fine condition.