Thursday, February 23, 2017
Black History Helping to Revitalize Post in Nation’s Capital
By Henry Howard
The American Legion
American Legion Post 5 in Washington, D.C., is working with American University faculty and students on a unique revitalization project.
Post 5, chartered in 1919, is battling to keep its membership consistent. “As the commander, I was getting desperate,” said Dr. James Jones. “We’re not getting enough people. What’s going to happen? What are we going to do when we don’t have enough people?”
In stepped Brenda V. Smith, professor at American’s Washington College of Law Community and Economic Development Law Clinic, and Angie Chuang, associate professor at the university’s School of Communication. They immediately zeroed in on the post’s treasure trove of history, artifacts and memorabilia that connects with veterans of any era.
“We’ve taken a creative approach to issues of membership,” said Smith, who sees this project as a way to better market the post to prospective members and the community. “It’s the essence of the post. The memories and insights that come with military service are displayed with these artifacts. They are really important in documenting the role the organizations played in the civic life of these African-American soldiers. That’s what the project is at the end of the day.”
Jones, Smith, Chuang and their students are moving forward on a plan to turn the post into a museum to highlight its history as a way to recruit, retain and engage members.
“Let’s get more people by telling them the history,” Jones said. “This history really became important because of the attractiveness of what we have to offer people. This is not only educating us there (at the post) but getting people to recognize The American Legion as a whole. If I were a young veteran, this history is something I would want to be part of.”
Post Vice Commander John Hicks agreed. “We talked about it and figured this is a wonderful idea if we can get it to work,” the Korean War veteran said. “A lot of people don’t know the post exists.”
Amid the photos, flags, awards, ledgers and newspaper articles, one can also learn about the civil rights movement.
“When we think of the civil rights movement, we imagine these organizations growing in the 1950s and 1960s,” Chuang said. “We often overlook the first civil rights organizations that were formed by veterans returning after World War I and II. They returned to cities like D.C. that were still segregated. And they decided to use their empowerment through these organizations to fight to make sure their rights were preserved. It’s a wonderful story that The American Legion can tell through its own members and posts.”
Smith and Chuang obtained a $10,000 collaborative faculty research grant for the post project. The money was used to pay for the creation of a website that showcases the post and its history, restoration of historic photos, and transportation to and from the post.
Students who participate in the project gain important real life opportunities to use what they learned in law and communications. Additionally, the students are filled with a renewed love of history and a dose of humility.
Through their research, law students JimShir Harris and Alex Morgan discovered various artifacts dating back almost a century. Among the findings was a photo of Post 5 namesake James Reese Europe with Red Cross nurses sometime around World War I. Europe was a well-known bandleader and among the first African-Americans in combat. He served as a lieutenant in the 369th Infantry Regiment, the Harlem Hellfighters.
Other findings included various photographs, documents and letters, including one from the post to Dr. W.E.B. DuBois, inviting him to speak at one of their events in 1924.
Jones credits the students. “They have changed our focus from ‘What are we going to do if the post closes?’ to ‘How do we keep alive?’” he said. “That’s what all this is about.”
It’s been a rewarding experience for the students.
“All of the history of the post is really interesting information,” Harris said. “We do try to have events on behalf of Post 5 to get more people to hear about the history. And once we do that, we always get great feedback. It helps generate membership. We want these events to bring post members together, as well as bring in new members.”
Already, the effort has resulted in some new members. Post 5 is starting to recruit through American University and is connecting with student veterans, including some who have joined the post. “The interest is there,” Jones said. “We can’t do it without numbers. We can’t do it without membership. You need the membership to get those things done.”
He is appreciative of the effort by university faculty and students. “It’s important for a minority group that has been underrepresented in education,” said Jones, an Air Force veteran who served in the Vietnam War. “And that’s what the museum is about. If we plan to stay alive, people need to see that we are worthy. Our focus is getting more people to come and join us.”
Smith sees a convergence in the post’s history. “It is intertwined in stories about arts, civil rights and civic engagement,” she said. “And even about the development of cities.”
Once the museum is up and running, Smith said, “the next step would be to bring in new people with new ideas for the post.”
She mentioned other potential uses for the post and its archives such as hosting book readings, providing space for other community groups to meet there, and allowing scholars to review and write about the post’s history. “That’s a way we could give the post a life beyond itself.”
The timing is critical as yoga studios, farm-to-table restaurants and other modern-day storefronts are surrounding the post building, Chuang noted. “The neighborhood around it is changing so rapidly that the post may be one of the only surviving vestiges of the African-American community that was there,” she said. “It’s all changing.”
Once Post 5 has stabilized, Jones sees that as an opportunity to be a good community leader.
“We want people to come to be a part of us,” he said. “When we get our feet on the ground and have enough people, we may try some legislative things like they used to do. We’re so busy trying to stay alive that we aren’t able to do those things. We need some boots on the ground to do good things in the community. We simply don’t have it now.”