Now in her 80s, Curtiss Wilson walks slowly and speaks the same way, with pauses between words, phrases and clauses. But don't mistake deliberation for an aging mind – Wilson is sharp as a tack. She remembers with great detail the roundabout courtship she had with her late husband, Clarence. When he visited her sister's house to call on Curtiss for the first time, she told her sister to send him away.
Her memory is also crystal clear about the important role Carmichael-Legree American Legion Post 167 played in East Tampa, Fla.'s black community decades ago. Clarence joined the post in the mid-1950s and maintained his membership until he passed away in 2002; Curtiss continues her decades-long membership in the Auxiliary membership to this day.
The post meant a lot to the black community, "especially those who lived on this side of town," she says. "This was before integration. We had few places to hang out and be together. The post was one of them. This was all we had to call our own. It was a gathering place. Families used it to have their repass after the funeral, birthday parties, weddings. When families had nowhere to go ... they came to The American Legion."
There are similar stories all over the country about traditionally black posts that served as important gathering places decades ago and remain relevant in their communities: Wayne Miner Post 149 in Kansas City, Mo., for example, and Dorie Miller Post 915 in Chicago. Their members share a deep pride in what the post has meant to local veterans and to the community in general.
A LONG LIST OF FIRSTS. Organized in September 1919 and chartered in 1920, Post 149 is named for U.S. Army Pvt. Wayne Miner, who served in the all-black 92nd Division in France during World War I. He was killed in action three hours before the war ended, and is believed to be one of the last U.S. soldiers to die in World War I.
Joe Mattox, Post 149's historian, says military service was a thorny issue in the black community in the early days of World War I. "(People felt) we haven't been treated as first-class citizens, so why should we join a fight ... across the world we're not involved in?" Mattox says.
But many did serve their country, making them eligible for membership in the newly formed American Legion. However, Legion departments had the final say in who could join, Mattox adds. "The American Legion left it up to states to accept black veterans into the membership. "(The) 5th District of Missouri said they had no problem (with that). And the white American Legion here was gung-ho, so the black American Legion became gung-ho."
Among Post 149's founding members were Homer B. Roberts, the first black man to own an automobile dealership in Kansas City, and Carl Johnson, the first African-American to be elected as municipal court judge. From World War II, post member Leon Jordan was the first black detective in the Kansas City police department, and Tuskegee Airman Bruce R. Watkins Sr. was one of the first blacks elected to countywide office and to run for mayor of Kansas City. Col. Charles Gates, who served as a tank commander under Gen. George Patton, was the first black to serve as a company commander of a Missouri National Guard unit.
"Many prominent leaders in Kansas City are, or were, members of The American Legion," Mattox says. "They came home (from the military) with some leadership abilities."
Decades later, Post 149 member Delbert White became the 5th District's first black commander. Another member, Edward Wilson, was the first black chief of the Kansas City Fire Department.
"When I originally came into The American Legion, I wish I would have come into this post," White says. "There's a reputation that this post earned and has continued to hold because of its membership and the things they do."
Post 149 continues to champion Legion programs, awarding thousands of dollars in scholarships, conducting Veterans Day ceremonies, providing funeral honors, sponsoring more than 100 Boys State participants through the years, and supporting Boy Scout units and local high school ROTC programs. The post has exceeded its
membership goals five years in a row.
Post 149 was also one of the first veterans organizations in the area to elect a woman as post commander: Juanita Houston, the first black woman from Kansas City to enlist in the Navy. The 78-year-old Houston says she appreciates that Post 149 members are there for her.
"It's like a family," she says. "Over the period of time that I have had some serious illnesses, I've had several of the members keep up with me, made sure I was doing all right. They called me on their own. All I have to do is call one of the fellas."
A TWOFOLD MISSION. Chartered in 1946, Dorie Miller Post 915 is named for the cook-turned-gunner hero at Pearl Harbor. Serving aboard USS West Virginia during the Japanese attack, Miller carried wounded shipmates to safety and went to the aid of Capt. Mervyn Sharp Bennion before Bennion – the ship's commander – died of his wounds. Miller then manned one of the ship's Browning .50-caliber anti-aircraft machine guns and is credited with shooting down several Japanese planes, earning him the Navy Cross.
Members of Post 915 believe the honors for Miller shouldn't stop there.
"Our No. 1 goal is to get Dorie Miller the Medal of Honor," says Gary Whyte, a past post commander. "We've been trying for four years."
"We want his family to see this honor bestowed upon him," adds Post Commander Willie Hodges Jr. "We're not giving up on getting this."
During its grass-roots campaign to award Miller the medal – including contacting members of state and U.S. legislatures, and succeeding in getting resolutions passed at The American Legion's national convention – Post 915 hasn't slowed in its other missions: providing Legion services and programs to its community. The post hosts back-to-school parties for local students, raises money for nursing scholarships, collaborates with other organizations to put on veterans career fairs, hosts a Veterans Day program and participates in Chicago Memorial Day activities.
The Post 915 family also conducts Boys and Girls State programs and sponsors local students in the Oratorical competition.
"It's about helping people," says Danny Eison, a past Post 915 commander who now serves as Illinois' 1st Division chaplain. "It starts with Americanism and Boys State. We get our young people involved. And we visit our sick comrades. We let them know we're thinking of them. And we never forget about the widow of a deceased veteran. It's about treating people with respect. We do that, and because of that, we're very well-known throughout our community."
Post 915 shared a home with a Veterans of Foreign Wars post until the late 1990s, when the VFW sold the facility. Since then, the post has met at the General Jones Armory on South Cottage Grove Avenue. The lack of a post home hasn't diminished the camaraderie of its members.
"I've always enjoyed being with the other fellas," says Vernon Coleman, a Navy veteran who joined the Legion 51 years ago. "I enjoy participating in the different activities we do, and I enjoyed being the post chaplain. It's just meant a lot to me to be a part of all this."
Among its former members, the post counts Elvin Carey, the Department of Illinois' first black commander; Eison was by Carey's side when he passed away in 2007. Also, Post 915 Adjutant Allen Kirkpatrick was the first black command sergeant major of the Illinois Army National Guard, part of a highly decorated military career. "There's a lot of pride in this post's history," Hodges says. "We've all been lucky to have some great mentors here within the post."
That mentorship – and the strong reputation of the post in the black community and beyond – has made a difference in the lives of its members.
"This post opened up a lot of doors for me," says Eison, who's been involved with the Legion at the national level for nearly 35 years. "I'd had doors closed in my face in Alabama, in Georgia. It wasn't that way here. Members here took me under their wings. I wouldn't be the person I am today without The American Legion and this post."
A POST YOU CAN COUNT ON. Named for two Coast Guardsmen who died when USS Tampa was sunk during World War I, Carmichael-Legree Post 167 was originally sponsored by Post 5 in Tampa as an auxiliary unit before becoming chartered as its own post in 1946.
Johnnie Lee Campbell, 86, joined the Legion in the 1940s and transferred his membership to Post 167 a decade or so after it was chartered. A Coast Guard veteran, he was drawn to the Legion for its patriotism and has been active in the post for seven decades. He served as post commander three times and made history in the 1980s when he became District 15's first black commander.
"At the time, I really didn't think about it," Campbell says. "I thought about it as being the 15th District commander. After considering it, I tried to open the gates for other blacks to come through."
Eunice Butts, a 30-year Legionnaire, is following in Campbell's footsteps, serving as District 15's commander. She remembers sneaking into the office of Post 167's commander years ago to read American Legion literature and learn more about the organization. She went on to become post commander, and Butts' leadership helped Post 167 win the prestigious Wilson Timmons Memorial Award for the best all-around post in Florida.
Post 167 has strong ties to local schools and youth, distributing Thanksgiving boxes to needy families, giving educational toys to students and hosting Easter egg hunts. The post also sponsors American Legion Baseball teams and young men for Florida Boys State.
Members of Post 167 are heavily involved in local schools, frequently speaking at veterans programs. Evangeline Best, an Auxiliary Unit 167 member and longtime Hillsborough County Public Schools social worker, has worked hard to get Legionnaires into the schools.
"Any time I called upon them for anything and everything, they were there," Best says. "To let them tell their story ... was so important. Nobody really knew the truth about what happened to them in their military life."
Though the post lost its physical facility when Interstate 275 expanded, it's managed to keep a strong presence in Tampa. "I've seen great, great pride in what this post has been able to do and still does," Butts says. "The members really care for veterans, but they also care for their community. People know they can count on The American Legion in this community."
Steve B. Brooks is social media editor for The American Legion.