The Old South
By Pat Arnow In These Times, March 21, 1999
When Doug Tyson first rang the doorbell of American Legion Post 7 in Durham, N.C., last May, he was surprised that he didn’t get past the foyer. A disabledVietnam veteran, he didn’t realize that this veterans’ service club, located in a black neighborhood in a mid-sized central Carolina city where half the population is black, was segregated. “The guy opened the door,” Tyson says. “I told him that I was a Vietnam veteran, that I wanted to join. He told me I must have the wrong post. He went and looked in the phone book and found a guy’s name, and he told me to call that guy about joining Post 175.”
When Tyson called the number, it became clear that he had been referred to a small post across town with an all-black membership. When he returned to the white post to fill out an application, this time with two other black veterans, he still didn’t know how much trouble he and his friends would have getting in. But they, and at least seven other black veterans who applied, spent months trying to join the largest post in the region. The post dragged out the process, not even responding to their applications for six months.
Meanwhile, the post conducted a recruiting campaign, offering a free tie to anyone in their group who could bring in five new members. At least a dozen white veterans, including Durham Mayor Nick Tennyson, joined the group during the months the black vets were trying to get in. (Post 7 Commander Les Dasch personally dropped off an application after Tennyson expressed an interest in joining, says the mayor.)
In November, six months after the first three black veterans had applied for membership, all 10 of the African-American applicants finally received a form letter from Post 7 Adjutant Tom Sexton. They were told they needed an American Legion member in good standing as a sponsor. They also had to provide copies of their discharge papers and $ 20 in dues.
Some of the black veterans sought the advice of civil rights attorney Julius Chambers, chancellor of Durham’s historically black North Carolina Central University. Chambers said the case piqued his interest because he remembered that when he was a law student at the nearby University of North Carolina in the ’50s, the Chapel Hill American Legion held social events for law students — white law students. He confirmed that the Legion, which has been a veteran’s service organization since 1919 and is chartered by the U.S. Congress, is required to follow federal civil rights laws. “You can’t have a federally chartered entity that discriminates,” Chambers told the group.
He advised the men to reapply. Seven did one afternoon in December. As they milled around the foyer, post assistant manager Wilma Garner took applications, dues and copies of discharge papers. It was Tyson’s third visit to the club. Post 7 Commander Dasch says that the black veterans had not been admitted before because they had not provided the necessary proof of service or dues. “They just come in and lay an application down and think they are a member,” he complains. There was no discrimination in the post, he says, pointing out that in recent months, “we also signed in a Hispanic, an Oriental,” who did provide paperwork. In fact, Post 7 had at least one black member, according to the commander of the “black” Post 175.
But Post 7 remained white and unwelcoming to blacks. White Durham psychologist Steven Giles [who is the author’s husband] applied for membership at the behest of the black veterans. Giles fulfilled most of his service in the Air Force reserves. Yet it was Giles, not the combat veterans, who received a warm welcome at Post 7. On his first visit, he was invited for a drink at the bar. When he filled out his application, Giles said he didn’t have his discharge papers handy — would the post accept some other documents that mentioned his terms of service? They would. All Giles had to do, the service officer told him, was come to the next meeting, and he would be sworn in. He received no form letter, heard nothing about needing a sponsor or personal identification. The next week, on Oct. 7, the membership voted him in.
Steve Thomas, a spokesman at the American Legion’s national headquarters in Indianapolis, says that “posts have a right to determine their own membership.” However, “they aren’t allowed to exclude based on race,” he says, because “a veteran is a veteran.” While the national office of the Legion does not gather statistics on the race of its members or officials, it’s clear from the monthly magazine for members, The American Legion, that the organization is still geared toward World War II veterans and is politically conservative. And of the 75 people pictured in illustrations and photos in the December issue, one man in a group picture was black.
In North Carolina and at the national level, “I find very few blacks in any type of leadership,” says Wayne Manley, the veterans’ service officer for Durham County, who is black. “Are we represented proportionately? We are not.” The Disabled American Veterans, another service organization, and the sprawling federal Department of Veterans Affairs “represent the veterans’ population better,” Manley says.
In most urban areas, veterans say the Legion is integrated. Yet in suburban and rural areas, “some of these posts are just about all black members, and some are just about all white members,” says Bill Rockel, who is a member of an all-white, small-town post in North Carolina.
It’s impossible to know if a post is willfully segregated until someone of another race shows an interest, and in most American Legion posts, no one is trying to upset the balance. But after a warning call from an associate of Chambers’ in January and notice that a story about the black vets would appear in the daily paper, a representative of Post 7 called each of the black veterans to invite them to a Jan. 11 meeting. Six attended, finally making it past the foyer. When the prospective members left the meeting room so that the membership could vote on their induction, Post Commander Dasch reported that the applications were in order.
The vote was not unanimous. It was 25 to 6 “with four members leaving in protest as the new members were escorted back into the meeting,” Giles says. “To their credit, the officers did the right thing. Several gave supportive speeches.” But he also heard a patron at the bar offer that it was “a sad but inevitable day.”
It was 1999, and integration had arrived.
Note: Before the American Legion post was integrated, I wrote the story about the veterans’ efforts for the Raleigh (N.C.) News & Observer. That story helped bring about integration.