The story of Bennett-Wells Post 1780 in Buffalo, N.Y., is not uncommon for many American Legion posts across the country. A post is formed by newly returned and enthusiastic veterans, prospers for a time and then starts to decline as its founding generation retires or passes on, and attracting a new cohort of veterans proves difficult. Sometimes, the post is able to replenish itself and goes on to a continued period of vitality. Other times, however, such efforts just don’t come together, and the post either disappears or becomes a shell of its past.
Post 1780 First Vice Commander Sandi Williams is determined to not let her post become a statistic. An eight-year member of the Legion, Williams is in charge of recruiting new members; she conceived and headed a membership drive that began in February 2011.
The choice of February – Black History Month – was by design. Although Post 1780 has and welcomes white members, the majority of its membership is black, and its history is intimately linked to the black community in Buffalo. The post was formed in 1954 by World War II and Korean War veterans, and was named for two black soldiers who died in World War II: Pvt. James Bennett and 2nd Lt. Johnson Wells. Its home is on the city’s east side, where black residents have lived since the 1820s, but in much larger numbers after World War I.
The black community there formed cultural and civic organs of its own, in response to segregation. By 1954, the area boasted a history of its own hotels and nightclubs, a theater, a cab company and several newspapers, as well as thriving chapters of the Negro Businessmen’s League, the American Colored Workmen League and others. Post 1780 fit well into this tradition of a community active in its own behalf.
The post still does so today, through benefits assistance for veterans, sponsoring a Boy Scout troop and more. But it has had to make do with fewer members. Time has taken its toll, according to Williams, who says, “the majority of Post 1780 members are elderly, and many are no longer able to participate in events.”
New members have trickled in over the years, but the overall count has declined. So Williams established a concerted membership drive, choosing Black History Month because “there were a lot of community events going on, so I thought that it would be a good time to recruit for members.”
A kickoff event was held in late February at a local library branch. Just prior to the event, Williams persuaded The Buffalo News to run an article on the post and its plans. Post leadership was on hand to answer questions, and a nurse practitioner was brought in to give health advice.
Over the next several months, the drive continued with post members going out into the community, but in August, no appreciable increase could be seen.
Undeterred, Williams pressed forward with the drive, and at the end of October announced that a few new members had signed up, one of them a transfer from New York’s department headquarters post.
Her next idea involved Buffalo’s Veterans Day celebration. Post 1780 marched in the city parade on Nov. 12, and Williams printed flyers with the post’s contact information and meeting times to hand out to veterans attending the parade.
She also invited nonmember veterans to march with them; and recruited at Auxiliary Unit 1780’s Veterans Day free spaghetti dinner for veterans and their families.
So while there has been some success with the membership drive, Williams isn’t satisfied yet.
“I’m not giving up.” she said. “I continue recruiting on a daily basis,” she said.
Williams credits Erie County Commander Bill Miskell for providing much in the way of both membership materials and encouragement. It may be that it will take a while for Post 1780 to re-cement itself in the next-generation-community’s consciousness as a veterans – and community – service organization.
But Williams is willing to work to make that happen.
Several membership materials are available through National Headquarters or online, from membership team training materials to the Legion’s “Why You Should Belong Booklet.” For more information, email email@example.com or go online to www.legion.org/membership or www.legion.org/publications.
Laura Edwards is assistant editor of The American Legion Magazine.