Hopewell Museum is marking the centennial of America’s entry into World War I with a fascinating exhibit about how average Americans, including many Kentuckians, took part in “the war to end all wars.”
The Hopewell, as it usually does, has put together an exhibit much better than typical small-town museum fare. “The Great War: Kentucky & Beyond,” which opens with a 2 p.m. reception Sunday and continues through Oct. 1, is well worth the drive.
“This is a war that is often covered very little in school; it has been eclipsed by World War II,” said exhibit curator Margaret Spratt, a former history professor who earned her doctorate at the University of Kentucky. “Historians understand its significance. It determined the events of the 20th century and even to today.”
The museum also will have a lecture series on the war. Historian Scott Ellsworth begins it Feb. 19 with a talk on “The Long Shadow: World War I, Race and the Making of America.”
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Spratt speaks March 19 on “Behind the Lines: American Women in France during the Great War.”
On April 9, historian David Bettez lectures about his new book “Kentucky and the Great War: World War I on the Home Front.”
Filmmaker Dorian Walker concludes the series June 27 with a talk on “Legends of the Sky: Development of the U.S. Air Corps during the Great War.”
Spratt, whose research focuses on women during this era, spent the past year finding artifacts and researching stories of Kentuckians in the war. She paid special attention to often-overlooked contributions of women and African-Americans.
For example, at a time when there were few women physicians, Dr Edith Smith of Cynthiana worked as an Army surgeon on the front lines in France. Some wounded were sent to England, where a hospital was staffed by a group of doctors and nurses from Lexington’s Good Samaritan Hospital, led by Dr. David Barrow.
Mary Breckinridge served with the American Committee for Devastated France after the war and came back to Kentucky to create the Frontier Nursing Service in Leslie County, now Frontier Nursing University.
The American Expeditionary Force had more than 60 black physicians — most graduates of Nashville’s Meharry Medical College — treating soldiers from black units, such as the “Harlem Hellfighters” of the 369th Infantry Regiment, who won many medals during six-straight months of trench warfare.
“Many of them fought alongside French soldiers,” Spratt said. “White Americans wouldn’t fight with them, so the French did.”
A substantial display of memorabilia includes a “doughboy” uniform from a Bourbon County family and a nurse’s uniform worn by a Louisville woman. There are original propaganda posters from the collections of Lexington attorney Paul Guthrie and Bob Stubblefield, former owner of Billy’s Barbecue. Several other posters come from Spratt’s collection, including a rare one honoring the “hello girls” trained by AT&T to serve as Army telephone operators in France.
The exhibit tells the story of Paris’ local hero, Capt. Reuben Hutchcraft, a former state legislator said to have died heroically in battle. But it also tells of a Ku Klux Klan march through Paris in June 1918 after three black residents were arrested for sedition for distributing a handbill urging black laborers to demand the same wages as whites.
The exhibit notes Kentuckian Solomon Lee Van Meter, who invented the backpack parachute and served as a Marine Corps lieutenant, and Garrett Morgan, a black inventor from Bourbon County whose 1912 “safety hood” was refined into the gas mask that saw extensive use in World War I trenches.
Many people don’t realize the far-reaching influence of the First World War. It made the United States a global power, and pioneered national mobilization efforts that would be used again during the Great Depression and World War II.
The war forever changed traditional relationships between America’s races and sexes. Women’s unprecedented participation in the war effort helped get them the right to vote in 1920. Many black soldiers returned from Europe unwilling to return to second-class status. Some even chose to stay in France, where they were treated more as equals
Those social changes created backlash, too. “We have more (race) riots and lynchings in the 1920s than we ever did in the 19th century,” Spratt noted.
“There’s so much history here that we don’t know that has had such an effect on our everyday lives,” she said. “War has many consequences beyond what we think.”