Capturing the past and present of African American veterans with ‘creative lawyering’

A D.C. American Legion post collaborates with AU Washington College of Law's Community and Economic Development Law Clinic to retain a legacy

By Sarah Edwards

Inside a North Capitol Street row house, its exterior a distinct faded magenta on a block of brown, red and peach row homes, lives a century’s worth of stories. Awards, ledgers, photographs, newspaper clippings, flags—a mountain of historical material, and the residence itself, belong to the American Legion James Reese Europe Post No. 5, one of the first African American veterans’ legions to form in the region in 1919.

For members of Post No. 5, such treasures feel like home decor. The treasures serve as reminders of a bygone era of battles and barbecues, of military honors and backyard baseball games.

But those artifacts are little known beyond Post. No. 5’s patchwork walls. A student-staffed clinic at the American University Washington College of Law is determined to help preserve them—and to help remind the world of their history.

The beginning

The Community and Economic Development Clinic accepted Post No. 5 as a client last year. Directed by Prof. Brenda Smith of the Washington College of Law, the clinic specializes in transactions, contracts and, more generally, the legal aspects of operating businesses and organizations.

Vice Commander John Hicks

Vice Commander John Hicks

“We talked about it and said, ‘[Representation] is a wonderful idea if we can get it to work,’ ” said Vice Commander John Hicks, who served in the Korean War and joined the Post over 50 years ago. “A lot of people today don’t know the Post exists,” and members agreed its past activity and community involvement should be revitalized, he said.

The Post’s membership, now mostly made up of Korean War veterans and a handful of World War II and Vietnam veterans, is steadily dwindling. The group is aging, and no new recruits from more recent wars have joined its ranks to restore Post. No. 5’s membership numbers to what they once were. In the 1990s, 1,000 veterans were listed on the Post’s register; today, there are 89 members. Only a few regularly attend meetings. The Post’s leaders say they see more compatriots at the funerals of members than at official Post gatherings.

Unsure of their path forward, Post No. 5 members asked the clinic to explore their options, including the option of last resort: dissolution.

Student lawyers Alexandra Shea and Patrick Grove were assigned the case after noting a desire to work with veterans on their clinic questionnaires. When the pair first visited Post No. 5, they expected to discuss the immediate problem—membership—as noted on the Post’s intake memo.

Then they met Post Commander Dr. James Jones.

Couched between two oval cheeks, Jones’ smile is small but mighty, radiating a soft warmth. Born in Memphis, Tennessee, Jones, 78, served in the Air Force during the Vietnam War and then became a forensic pathologist. He was elected to the Post’s leadership many years ago.

Commander Dr. James Jones

Commander Dr. James Jones

At their first meeting in the North Capitol Street house, Jones guided Shea and Grove down narrow, creaking hallways that opened into spacious, soft-lit rooms: offices turned storage units. File cabinets overflowed with documents dating back to the 1940s; black and white portraits lined the walls, capturing Post members of decades past dressed in uniform, their arms tossed comfortably across the shoulders of comrades.

The deeper into the house they explored, the more Jones shared about the life of the Post. He peeled back layers, exposing heavier, more complicated questions, and the battles fought by these veterans—both overseas and at home.

When Post No. 5 members returned from war, they set to work to advance civil rights and veterans services in Washington. African American veterans were routinely sidelined from military benefits and honors. The Post partnered with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and other local activists against inequality and cruel treatment of African Americans—which Dr. Jones said was far worse in Washington than in military.

“There’s so much history there. We kind of knew this wasn’t going to be a simple client,” Shea recalled. “And we left the Post with more questions than answers.”

A Plan of Action

 “The reality is, a lot of people, when they think of community and economic development, think about bricks and mortar,” said Prof. Smith, who supervised Shea and Grove. “A community is not just bricks and mortar. It is composed of people and histories and stories and traditions.”

With that understanding, Smith encouraged her students to think critically about how to approach Post No. 5’s case, “with no option being off the table,” she said. “I find very often my job in supervision is to ask, ‘Why not?’ ”

And so the students brainstormed—ambitiously.

After two months of research and deliberation, they chose four priority areas to guide their work: increase membership, ensure the post is up to date on Washington rules governing nonprofit organizations, historical preservation and steps to dissolution.

“Those four ideas are all connected. Some got pushed forward, others got pushed back,” said Shea.

The team started with the most urgent issue: recruitment. They launched outreach efforts at five area universities “to see if there was a way for current veterans to know that this Post existed,” as well as active-duty college students, said Shea.

Grove, who is in the Army Reserves, helped connect Post members with student military groups, in an effort to jumpstart conversation.

Their efforts garnered little response. The shift in a younger generation of veterans away from traditional organizations like American Legion and VFW to groups like The Mission Continues or Team Red, White & Blue, which focus on volunteerism and exercise, respectively, has been well documented across the country.

Undeterred, Shea and Grove simultaneously tackled the second and third tiers of the plan. Combing through the Post’s bylaws and constitution, the pair took steps to ensure the organization was in line with district regulatory requirements. In a nutshell, said Shea, it meant dozens of phone calls to the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.

But the real challenge—and the real fun—started when Shea and Grove strategized with Post members to construct a plan to preserve its enormous trove of historical treasures.

Preserving the Past

In November 2014, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture hosted a daylong program at Carnegie Library to help area residents identify and preserve personal items of historical significance.

The students met Jones at the library. He brought with him five relics of Post No. 5: a certificate that pre-dates the post, commemorating black soldiers who fought in the Spanish-American War; a photograph of the post’s namesake, James Reese Europe, who served as a lieutenant in the 369th Infantry Regiment, the Harlem Hellfighters, in World War I; Europe’s original discharge certificate with a letter from his relative who donated it to the post; and a charter for Post No. 5’s counterpart, the women’s auxiliary.

Photo by Sarah Edwards / Buried in file cabinets, closets and boxes are piles of material like the ledger books above, which were used to track all correspondence sent and received from Post No. 5 between 1947 and 1948.

Photo by Sarah Edwards
Buried in file cabinets, closets and boxes are piles of material like the ledger books above, which were used to track all correspondence sent and received from Post No. 5 between 1947 and 1948.

After an expert analyzed the items, Shea said they had a “wake-up call” about the amount of work—and money—that preservation requires. The expert gave them tips on the proper ways to matte photographs under light-protected glass, how to store documents on acid paper, and the need to differentiate memorabilia that should be preserved from less historically valuable artifacts.

Smith, who learned of a faculty grant opportunity through the American University Metropolitan Policy Center, partnered with Prof. Angie Chuang of the American University School of Communication, to submit a funding request for a project supporting the preservation efforts. The application was successful, and Shea and Grove were able to charge ahead.

“People think about law and lawyers as being fairly pedantic and narrow and subscribed,” said Smith. “But there’s a real important space for creation and creativity in lawyering. In some ways, it’s kind of like magic. We take words and create realities and relationships and options.”

By the end of the academic year, what began as kernels of ideas in brainstorming sessions, conversations with Post members and painstaking research, had transformed into a plan that was not only innovative, but achievable.

Shea and Grove laid the groundwork for the Post No. 5 headquarters to become a museum.

Continuing Representation

 Following the graduation of Shea and Grove, student lawyers Lillian Bales and Rhey Duque transitioned into the clinic, “picking up their torch and carrying it along,” Bales said.

Similar to Shea, they quickly learned that representation of Post No. 5 required more than traditional legal acumen. They would need to adjust their expectations of handling corporate legal questions to include a “history project,” said Bales.

The team welcomed the opportunity.

Free to re-imagine the client, the duo has made the relationship with the Post their own, said Smith. Currently, they’re searching for an archivist historian to lead the process of sifting through the material and help decide what to preserve and how.

With no end to their representation in sight, the clinic will continue to press forward with the simple goal for the Post “to be in a better place than they were when we met them,” said Smith.

“Even when they were being treated unfairly in their community, [Post members] still served,” Smith said. “There are so many parallels and lessons to be learned about perseverance. About tending your own garden and watching it grow.”