It is a small photograph in a large grouping that first hits the eye.
It shows the 369th Infantry Regiment -- 1,300 black men and 18 white officers out of 19 -- marching up Fifth Avenue. They are on the way home to Harlem on Feb. 17, 1919, three months after the Armistice. They were among 80,000 American blacks sent to Europe.
They were chosen as the appropriate introduction to the multimedia exhibition called "The Renaissance: Black Arts of the Twenties," which opened yesterday at the Smithsonian's little Anacostia Neighborhood Museum.
Militarily, the 369th was remarkable. They had spent 191 unbroken days in the trenches. The French called them "Hell Fighters" and showed their esteem by choosing the 369th to lead the march on the Rhine.
A French star and palm gleamed from the chest of Sgt. Henry Johnson. It was the Croix de Guerre, and Johnson had been the first American to win one. In battle, he had run out of ammunition, then killed four of the enemy with a knife and captured another 22.
Among the French, though, the 369th's band, under Lt. "Big Jim" Europe (the only black officer), was almost as celebrated as the fighters -- its jazz rubbing off on the likes of Ravel, of Milhaud, of Stravinsky more than half a decade before Gershwin brought jazz into American concert halls with "Rhapsody in Blue." The regimental drum major was, no less, Bill (Bojangles) Robinson.
At 60th Street and Fifth Avenue, there was a reviewing stand, with New York Gov. Alfred E. Smith the ranking dignitary. But the reception was humiliatingly less than what it would be in today's world. The City Council had refused to observe an official holiday, and Mayor John F. Hylan had found it convenient to vacation in Florida.
But these black men returned forever changed. "They had come," observes David Levering Lewis, author of "When Harlem Was in Vogue," "as thousands of other returning Afro-American soldiers came, with a music, a life style, and a dignity new to the nation -- and soon to pervade it."
The Harlem Renaissance show will be the last one at the Anacostia museum before it leaves its home of 18 years for a new building at Fort Stanton Park. The show is dramatic more for the period of history that it commemorates than for the objects on display themselves.
In fact, that large grouping of snapshots at the opening -- from the marching troops to a charming photo of poet Langston Hughes, who has turned out to be the most enduring black artist of the period, drinking with Wallace Thurman, the writer who died tragically young -- does as much as anything to set the tone of the age, its "vogue," as Lewis aptly called it.
"This stuff on display needs context like this if it is to mean much to the viewer," explains Rebecca Welch, the former Smithsonian curator who organized the show. "One of the fascinating things about the period is the way everything overlaps. It was a small crowd, in a given time [from the end of the war to the Depression] And, unlike now, the musicians, for instance, would know a Du Bois [W.E.B. Du Bois, the brilliant polemicist], and vice versa. To understand the subject today, you have to know a bit about the personalities."
With the esprit brought on by the postwar sense of creativity among blacks in Harlem, as well as in places like Washington, there was a sort of interdisciplinary interchange. "There was a circle of people who had not been talking with each other before, and now they were talking with each other," says Welch. Some of the leading black thinkers began to catalogue some of these figures as "the New Negro."
In addition, the blacks were talking with important whites, and vice versa. One of the catalytic events between artists of the races was a widely known dinner staged by Charles S. Johnson in 1924; among the whites there were H.L. Mencken, Carl Van Doren and Eugene O'Neill (he had started writing on black subjects years earlier with "The Emperor Jones" and at that very time was staging his play about miscegenation, "All God's Chillun Got Wings," starring Paul Robeson).
There is little that a museum show can do to bring alive this kind of performing arts material, however strong it must have been. The array of programs, critiques and photos from the period indeed whets the appetite.
The visual arts fare better in this kind of show -- especially the powerful Art Deco graphics of Aaron Douglas. The paintings are not particularly bold stylistically. Most of them are small scale and are portraits. One of the fascinating things about them is the apparent African influence. In contrast with today, that influence was indirect. "It was Picasso and Braque who came in direct contact with the African masks, in Europe," says Welch. "And Americans found out about them through the Cubists, in things like the Armory show, not from the Africans."
Equally appealing visually are the fashion exhibits. There are, for instance, some elegantly beaded and embroidered black party dresses from the Harlem Institute of Fashion. They belonged to the elegant A'Lelia Walker, heir to the C.J. Walker hair preparation fortune, and they say it all about the level of high living in the period.
There are musical and audio-visual exhibits. In some of these areas, the links to Harlem are tentative, as in the dubious inclusion of Marian Anderson.
The show, at 2404 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE, runs through December -- from 10 to 6 on weekdays, and noon to 6 on weekends.