New exhibit delves into “How World War I Changed Richmond”

Richmond is well-known for its role on the home front during World War II. The city produced 747 ships for the U.S. Navy and it’s the birthplace of Rosie the Riveter, an icon inspired by the Richmond women who worked in WWII shipyards.

But foundations for the city’s role during WWII were laid during World War I, and the Richmond Museum of History is delving into that rich history in a new exhibit, “How World War I Changed Richmond.” The exhibit’s opening coincides with the 100th anniversary of US involvement in WWI.

“I was really excited to be able to tell the story of WWI here in Richmond,” said Melinda McCrary, the museum’s executive director. “It’s such an instrumental time in our history that is often overshadowed.”

Richmond didn’t build ships during WWI, but the city did contribute a number of other important things to the war effort, including a unit of National Guardsmen who were sent overseas to replace soldiers who were missing and killed on the battlefront.

Richmond resident Wilbur Oakley was one such soldier, McCrary said. His uniform, helmet, gas mask and service medals are on display at the museum. “He came back to Richmond and lived a relatively obscure life after his time in the trenches,” McCrary said.

WWI also saw the establishment of a Red Cross chapter in Richmond. The chapter started in April 1917 and, by the end of the war, it had more than 800 members, McCrary said.

“All of these institutions that later became instrumental in our success—the success of Richmond as a shipbuilding city and as a WWII home front—those institutions were founded during WWI,” she said.

Richmond residents also pitched in to support the war effort through raising money during victory bond drives, providing relief for civilian casualties overseas and even growing their own food.

“Here in Richmond, people were growing Victory Gardens,” McCrary said. “They weren’t necessarily called ‘Victory Gardens’ during WWI, but there are accounts of people growing their own food in Richmond.”

The museum is hosting informational talks to supplement the exhibit. On April 8, San Jose State University English Professor Karen English will discuss American poetry during WWI; on May 6, WWI Historical Association President Sal Campagna will lead a presentation about why the US entered WWI; and on June 3, local historian Susan Anderson will talk about the African American experience in California during WWI.

McCrary will also lead tours of the exhibit.

“My team and I learned so much about WWI in Richmond during the year that we were preparing for the exhibit,” McCrary said. “I decided it would be a benefit to our guests to lead a few curator tours.”

The exhibit has a personal connection for McCrary. While researching, she discovered that she shares a birthday with a young soldier who perished during the war. The young man was drafted and killed “almost immediately” McCrary said.

“He died so young, he never had a chance to get married, or have children, or go to college, or really have an adult life,” McCrary said, adding that his story was “something that touched me very personally.”

McCrary said she hopes others will also find personal inspiration in both the WWI exhibit and the museum’s other collections.

“Local history is really important because it shows and demonstrates that amazing things have taken place right here, and it inspires people to achieve those same extraordinary things in their own life,” she said. “I very much expect that you will leave inspired and want to give back to your community.”

The “How World War I Changed Richmond” exhibit is currently open and will remain open through June 30. The Richmond Museum of History’s hours are Wednesday-Sunday from 1-4 p.m. Admission is $5 for adults, $3 for senior citizens and students over 12, and free for children under 12.

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