The James Reese Europe Post No. 5 of the American Legion met for the first time in 1919 in an empty freight rail car at the Washington Navy Yard to form one of the nation’s first African American veterans’ organizations. The post’s namesake, Lieutenant James Reese Europe, who grew up in Washington, D.C., was a jazz musician and director of the 369th U.S. Infantry Band. The 369th, known as the Harlem Hellfighters, was an African American regiment that served more combat time in WWI than any other unit. Ironically, at the time, it was difficult for African Americans to serve in the military because of racist assumptions about their fitness for duty. Europe and his regiment not only blew apart those stereotypes, but they also helped to spread American ragtime and jazz music all over the world.
Upon their return from WWI, African American veterans were excluded from traditional veteran support organizations, which led to the creation of Post No. 5. The post has been located at 2027 N. Capitol St. NW since 1954. In its 95 years in the community, it has provided support for generations of veterans and their families and served the community through youth programs, service projects, and events to bring people together.
Over the past several years, the AUWCL Community and Economic Development Law Clinic has been working with Post No. 5 to preserve and find a location to house its rich archive of historical documents, pictures, and artifacts. In collaboration with AU School of Communications Professor Angie Chuang and Prologue DC, who have worked on aspects of the research and archiving process, the CEDLC hopes to help Post No. 5 determine the next stage of its mission. CEDLC Professor Brenda Smith says, “I think the Post has a future that it can’t really see yet. I feel that the Post is going to be a place where people come to study the participation of African Americans in conflicts.”