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Artists' Depiction of War

Artists who experienced the tragedies and triumphs of war brought new and compelling themes to the world of art. During World War II, artworks by black artists often depicted the emotional traumas of war and visually critiqued the hypocrisy of their country’s “liberty and justice for all” declaration. John Wilson’s 1942 “Black Solder” and Henry Wilmer Bannarn’s 1943 “Spirit of the 366th” are both hauntingly beautiful examples of the social commentary created by such artists.

Spirit of the 366th, Bannarn, Henry Wilmer, 1943, Clark Atlanta University Art Museum
Spirit of the 366th
Bannarn, Henry Wilmer
1943
Clark Atlanta University Art Museum
2 Black Soldier, Wilson, John Woodrow, 1943, Clark Atlanta University Art Museum
Black Soldier
Wilson, John Woodrow
1943
Clark Atlanta University Art Museum

Wilson’s somber depiction of a soldier looking over his shoulder for one last glimpse of his family before marching onward to Lady Liberty poignantly illustrates the psychological strain felt between the black men drafted into war and the families they left behind. Bannarn’s portrait of a solider from the 366th Infantry Regiment, a segregated unit of the United States Army, exudes dignity and grace in the face of turmoil abroad and racial hatred at home.

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There was, however, one place in particular which prided itself on treating all enlisted soldiers, sailors and airmen with the highest degree of respect: the Stage Door Canteen. Located in New York’s Broadway theater district, the canteen offered servicemen nights of dancing, live music, food, nonalcoholic drinks, and a racial oasis in a country still fraught with segregation. A 1943 article in Theatre Arts magazine went so far as to call the New York canteen “one of the few democratic institutions in existence anywhere: English soldiers, sailors and RAF [Royal Air Force] men dance beside, mingle and eat with Chinese airmen, Americans from every branch of the service, including Negroes and Indians, Canadians, Australians; South Africans, Dutch and French sailors…occasionally Russians: all are a part of the Stage Door Canteen.”

Stage Door Canteen invitation, Countee Cullen, 1903-1946, Harold Jackman, 1901-1961, 1945 October 29, Countee Cullen-Harold Jackman Memorial Collection
Stage Door Canteen invitation
Cullen, Countee, 1903-1946, Jackman, Harold, 1901-1961
1945 October 29
Countee Cullen-Harold Jackman Memorial Collection
American Theatre Wing War Service identification card, Countee Cullen, 1903-1946, Harold Jackman, 1901-1961, 1943 June 1, Countee Cullen-Harold Jackman Memorial Collection
American Theatre Wing War Service identification card
Cullen, Countee, 1903-1946, Jackman, Harold, 1901-1961
1943 June 1
Countee Cullen-Harold Jackman Memorial Collection
4 Jackman, Harold with others Stage Door Canteen, Countee Cullen, 1903-1946, Harold Jackman, 1901-1961, 1942 August 8, Countee Cullen-Harold Jackman Memorial Collection
Harold Jackman with others at Stage Door Canteen, August 8, 1942

On any given night one could see A-list celebrities, musicians, and esteemed writers at the canteen socializing with soldiers of all races, including notable socialite Harold Jackman, seen in the picture below shaking hands with a white solider at the Stage Door Canteen in 1942. By November 1945, Stage Door Canteens were operating in eight US cities along with London and Paris. Collectively, they entertained and fed 11 million Allied servicemen. The end of the war, however, led to the closing of the canteens and in October 28, 1945 the New York canteen closed their doors for the last time.

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Musical productions such as “This Is The Army, ” an American wartime stage musical revue in two acts, were staged to boost morale as well as raise money for relief funds in the U.S. during World War II.

Click on the image to read the Playbill fullscreen.

This is the Army
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Memorial

Military Serviceman, Hugh M. Gloster, 1958 December, Hugh M. Gloster photograph collection

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