Civil rights education in the U.S. often focuses on movements that took place within the country, leaving out the struggle that occurred worldwide.
The Sonja Haynes Stone Center’s newest exhibition, “The Civil Rights Struggle, African-American GIs, and Germany,” aims to broaden the perspective.
The exhibition — which is made up of mainly prints and photos — focuses on the millions of African-American soldiers stationed in Germany during the Cold War era who acted as vehicles for social change.
Maria Hoehn, history and international studies professor at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., is the project’s co-coordinator. She co-wrote the book “A Breath of Freedom,” which focuses on the same themes.
“The exhibit’s intent is to show the African-American freedom struggle in the whole world,” she said.
The selection of photos and political posters depict the civil rights struggle in Germany during the Cold War era.
A recording of Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1964 sermon in Berlin along with biographies of two black soldiers from North Carolina who served in Germany give the gallery another dimension.
The collection was honored in 2009 by the NAACP with the Julius E. Williams Distinguished Community Service Award and was featured in Germany and England prior to its arrival in the U.S.
While the primary goal of the project is to further academic research and the study of worldwide movements, Hoehn said she hopes the project can also broaden the public’s perspective on the civil rights movement.
“I’m very much committed to being a public historian,” she said.
Joseph Jordan, director of the Stone Center, said he first heard of the project from Marina Jones, a graduate student at UNC.
Jones was a consultant on the project and thought its content would be appropriate for the Stone Center, Jordan said in an email.
“The subject matter transcends any one demographic,” he said.
Jordan said exhibitions are usually brought to the Stone Center by direct contact from curators. The University typically funds the cost of transporting the work.
Though the curators are unpaid by the University, they are more interested in showing “the fruits of their labors” than in making money, Jordan said.
Priscilla Layne, a professor in the department of Germanic languages and literatures at UNC, said she found the exhibition refreshing.
Layne studies the exchange of cultures between Germany and the U.S., looking specifically at the 20th and 21st centuries.
She said that even though she had read Hoehn’s book during her dissertation research and was very familiar with the content, seeing the display was a new experience.
“It was really exciting to see the actual photos and posters,” she said. “There’s something powerful about seeing it in person.”
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