Current events become history and memories fade, but usually the next generation carries the stories into the future. But what happens when the next generation is missing? The American Legion, James Reese Europe Post No. 5 of Washington, D.C., one of the only surviving American Legion posts, is confronting this exact problem.
The James Reese Europe Post No. 5, founded in 1919 in a freight car over a lunch break at the Washington Navy Yard, has served African American veterans for almost 100 years. The idea for the Post came about when World War I veteran, Alexander Mann, met with fellow veterans and called for a proactive organization centered on assisting veterans of color.
Since then, Post No. 5 has advocated for everything from veteran’s rights to civil rights while also maintaining a supportive social community through sunrise breakfasts and barbecues, according to the current commander and vice commander of the Post.
“The biggest achievement we’ve had is helping the soldiers in the hospital and helping soldiers get their pensions and hospital care,” said Vice Commander John Hicks, veteran of the 3rd Infantry Division in the Korean War, who joined Post No. 5 in 1960.
Now Post No. 5 struggles to garner new membership. Younger veterans don’t see the need, said Post 5 Commander James Jones, veteran of the Air Force during the Vietnam War. Jones compared the Post’s difficulty to recruit young people to the struggle of churches. Churches struggle to attract and maintain young members in an era when younger generations identify as religiously unaffiliated, according to the Pew Research Center.
Commander Jones and Vice Commander Hicks worry about losing the history of Post No. 5 if they can’t recruit younger members.
“It would be sad to see the Post deteriorate, knowing that it was thriving [in the past],” Hicks said. “There’s a lot of history in this Post.”
Combating ‘social ills’
From its founding, the James Reese Europe Post No. 5 has celebrated the contributions of African-American soldiers. The Post’s namesake, James Reese Europe, was one of the first African Americans to attend officer’s training and went on to serve as 1st Lieutenant of the 369th Infantry, the “Harlem Hellfighters,” during World War I in France, according to the Post’s historical records.
Europe’s contributions are often overlooked, said Commander Jones. After his death, Europe was lauded for his military band and success as a jazz entertainer in American papers. In French papers, Europe’s accomplishments as a commander of troops in battle were the focus of attention, said Jones.
During the interwar period, Post No. 5, under the command of Earl D. McLain, partnered with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to advocate for the release of members of the 24th Infantry who were imprisoned in Fort Leavenworth after they “defended themselves from rank race prejudice, insults and beatings from the southerners” in 1917, according to Post documents.
Well into the middle of the 20th century, Post No. 5 members who were leading activists in the D.C. Civil Rights movement continued to address issues of racism, according to Jones.
Vice Commander Hicks, originally from North Carolina, said it took time for black soldiers to get recognition during the Korean War.
“There’s a lot of change in the service than it was back then,” Hicks said.
For Commander Jones, life outside the military proved to be more full of “social ills” of the time. He said he believed the military was a “little ahead of the country” with regards to racism.
Activism efforts also focused on continuing Post No. 5’s advocacy for veteran care. Hicks recalls coordinating with different organizations, such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Disabled American Veterans Charity, to ensure the Veterans Affairs Administration fulfilled their promises.
In addition, the Post connected local veterans to organizations and resources that would aid them in finding living arrangements and assist families of fallen veterans with funeral plans. Hicks views the Post’s work securing care for homeless and wounded veterans as Post 5’s “biggest impact.”
However, that was “back then,” said Hicks. Post No. 5 members still go to a Veterans Affairs hospital and help returning veterans, but it has become difficult to engage in the same level of veteran support as membership dwindles due to old age, death and a lack of new recruits, according to Hicks.
‘Standing room only’
In 1994, the Post’s 75th anniversary, membership was at 1,000 veterans. Today there are only 89 people on the Post register and even fewer active members, according to Commander Jones.
Post No. 5 “used to have so many members downstairs it was standing room only,” Vice Commander Hicks said.
The Post hosted various events, ranging from fundraisers for local schools and barbecues to social trips to casinos. Hicks said Post No. 5 even had sunrise breakfasts before Saturday meetings. As the cook, Hicks would arrive at the Post’s home extremely early to begin preparations.
Hicks became the Post No. 5 chef when the previous cook became sick. He volunteered to cook for that one meeting, becoming head chef for future events to today. It was the “biggest mistake,” Hicks said with a smile about that fateful day he volunteered.
“I always wanted to be a cook,” Hicks said. He had hoped to cook in the Army when he was drafted at 18, but did not get the opportunity until after his service.
Commander Jones also has experience with the culinary arts. Jones and Hicks prepared dishes for an event at their church, People’s Congregation Church of Christ. At the annual People’s Men Are Cooking event held in November, in which male congregants prepare a meal, Jones cooked Memphis barbecue in honor of his home and Hicks made his in-demand barbecued pig’s feet.
‘Don’t see the need’
Jones and Hicks hope to see Post No. 5 “revitalized,” so they can continue helping retired veterans and preserving the organization’s almost century-old history.
Hicks described one of his responsibilities as vice commander to be recruiting new members. “Even though we go out and recruit,” younger veterans aren’t interested, said Hicks who joined after hearing about the American Legion from a Post No. 5 member at his church.
Hicks, who is also a member of Veterans of Foreign Wars and former VFW commander, sees challenges in engaging younger veterans as a universal problem and not particular to Post No. 5.
Outreach isn’t limited to men. Women veterans have been members of Post No. 5. Effie Johnson, a veteran of World War II, was the first and only female commander of Post No. 5, said Jones and Hicks. In 1943, Johnson enlisted in the Army one year after African American women were permitted to enter the service. Johnson’s tenure as Post No. 5 commander began in 1994. She is also a member of the women’s auxiliary for the spouses of Post No. 5 members.
Jones and Hicks can only guess at why currently returning veterans are not interested in joining the American Legion Post No. 5. Hicks thinks it’s because “they want something to do” and “we’re more of a serious type of organization.” Jones suggests it’s because “youngsters don’t see the need,” since they have more options these days.
After Vietnam, military service was not as universal of an experience for younger people as it had been, Jones said. He noticed that many veterans were seeking community – something that was not offered much to soldiers at the completion of their service in Vietnam. “The American Legion [Post No. 5] … was attractive to young blacks during the era.”
But as attendance to meetings and the number of active members dwindles to a handful of mostly Vietnam- and Korea-era veterans, Commander James Jones and Vice Commander John Hicks fear for the future of American Legion Post No. 5. What about the Post’s various artifacts? What about the house? What about the needs of future veterans?
“This is the Post’s building,” Jones said. “But what happens if we all die?”