Bennett-Wells American Legion Post 1780 has triumphed over fires, vandals and burglars, but a big debt and mismanagement recently left it broke and on the brink of shutting down.
“There was no fire insurance on the building from 2009. The upstairs apartment was in disrepair, and there was a foot of water in the basement,” Vice Commander Walter Cole recalled. “Plus the liquor license had expired along with all the permits for music, food, dancing.”
The veterans called for reinforcements, and the Women’s Auxiliary answered the call.
“They were really on their last legs, they really and truly were,” said Carol Cole, wife of Walter Cole and past auxiliary president. “We thought we would lose the building. And the men were just not functioning as a unit, so therefore, they came to us and shared the information, which was unusual because we usually kept our business separate. We’ve always had little fundraisers for ourselves, so we voted to turn over some of our funds, starting with $1,000 to stop the water leak in the basement.”
The post, chartered in 1954 by 104 African-American veterans from World War II and the Korean War, has through the years made its home on the city’s East Side, from the original meeting place over a Clinton Street funeral home to its most recent post on East Delavan Avenue.
Three years ago, the organization was $16,000 in debt and its hall in danger of foreclosure. In fact, the post faced the possibility of disbanding.
Helen Smith Porter, auxiliary treasurer, was among those who jumped into action.
“I took $1,000 of my personal money to City Hall, and got them off the foreclosure list,” said Porter, whose father served in the Army during World War II. “The women got the apartment functional. We had lost the tenant upstairs due to lack of repairs. We applied for and received all the permits for assembly, music, kitchen. We updated a little kitchen with equipment.”
And one by one, the overdue bills were paid.
“Historically we are just hard workers,” Carol Cole said. “The few people we have had join who are young don’t really stay because I think there are other groups they can have more fun with. We volunteer at the VA hospital. We used to give away 20 turkeys with all the trimmings to people in our neighborhood. We helped organize a block party. We agreed to help the men as long as they allowed members from our organization to serve on their board.”
When Post 1780 discovered in 2010 that 14 Civil War veterans buried in Forest Lawn lacked markers signifying their status as enslaved African-Americans, the 25-member auxiliary kickstarted a fund drive. “We did everything we could to raise the $4,000 it took to have a historical marker made and installed,” said Carol Cole, a retired pediatric nurse practitioner. “And now those 14 have stars on their markers.”
Late one morning last week, the Coles joined post commander Henry Jernigan in the post’s wood-paneled meeting room. American flags, American Legion banners and photos of past commanders decorated the walls. Taking center stage were portraits of Pvt. James Bennett and 2nd Lt. Johnson Wells, who gave the post its name. The two African-American soldiers died in World War II.
“When I joined, I was 47, and there were veterans from World War II and the Korean War who were skeptical,” Walter Cole said, “but they realized they needed to bring in younger members if they wanted the post to survive. There was a lot going on here. The Elks and the block club met here. We had a very good reputation.”
Cole’s sweatshirt, a gift from his sister – past auxiliary president Patricia Aughtry – depicted a watercolor version of the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, one of the first official African-American units in the United States during the Civil War.
“The organization has a lot of history and that history shouldn’t die,” said Cole, a retired instructor with Orleans-Niagara BOCES. “A lot of times, the younger guys don’t care about that. I know that when I came back from Vietnam, I didn’t want anything to do with the military.”
David Czarnecki is past commander of the 6th District Veterans of Foreign Wars. He noted similar problems of decreasing membership at many of the 33 VFW posts in Erie County.
“We all have the same problems trying to bring in younger veterans,” said Czarnecki, who is 66 and a Vietnam War veteran.
Jernigan, recently elected commander at Post 1780, is a Vietnam-era veteran who welcomed three new members to the post this March. “I guess because what went on in the past, a lot of people would not join,” Jernigan said of the problems the post faced.
Porter, too, cited the need to attract new members. “Like every couple of months, someone is passing,” Porter said. “I used to be the youngest one here, and I’m 60.”
Current plans call for a summer festival in Ellicott Creek Park in July, plus the possibility of resurrecting the annual block party.
“When I delved into the history of the organization, I found out about the GIs who formed the post and how they experienced segregation,” said Cole. “Some of the things they had to go through rocked me. Here were people who went and fought for their country but were not allowed to vote because they lacked a high school diploma. Here were guys who if on a troop train would have had to give up their seat for German POWs.”
He reached for his legion hat, got up from his chair and pointed to a wall of photographs.
“I want one of my grandchildren or great-grandchildren to be able to walk into the post – it could be anywhere – and look up at my photo and say: ‘That was my great-grandpa.’ ”