American Legion Post 41

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In Phoenix, a group of Mexican American veterans returned from World War II with a mission: to challenge discrimination and better the lives of their community. In the first five years after the war, they formed American Legion Post 41- using the organization as a vehicle to challenge segregation in housing, and to provide health care services to families in the area through a well-baby clinic.

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Narrator: Tucked away in a century-old Phoenix neighborhood just south of downtown stands a small, simple building. This structure embodies the story of a group of Mexican-American veterans who returned from World War II and formed an organization with a compelling purpose: to battle for equal rights for their community. Prior to the second world war, Phoenix was a racially divided town.

Dr. Pete R. Dimas: The segregation was enforced by unenforceable real estate covenants. The area south of Washington , especially, and certainly Van Buren was the point of separation.

Narrator: World War II marked the beginning of a social transformation. During the war, up to 500,000 Mexican-Americans across the U.S. entered the armed forces. Many from Phoenix enlisted.

Lencho Othon: Of course I got into anti-aircraft artillery. Instead of flying them, our job was to knock them down. At that time, they were fearful that the Japanese would try to invade or bomb.

Narrator: After the war ended, Mexican-American veterans arrived home as decorated, proud soldiers.

Ray Martinez: So when we got out of the service, some of us knew we had a mission because we were not going to go back to the discrimination we had suffered before. We were determined that, by golly, you know, now's the time to do something.

Narrator: Drawn to the concept of the American Legion, a national organization that assisted veterans, a group of young Hispanic men submitted the charter papers for a legion post of their own. They formed Thunderbird Post 41 in November of 1945 under the leadership of men like Ray Martinez and Frank "Pipa" Fuentes. Members of Post 41 quickly got involved with battles to end discrimination in the Phoenix area. In 1946, they helped Tempe Hispanic veterans to desegregate the city's public pool, Tempe Beach . Soon, other issues came to a head.

Ray Martinez: During the war, there was a shortage of housing. And after the war, veterans came home and they had to double up with others. I mean, there's 10 or 12 living to a house, and we were very much concerned about it, and so were the officials.

Narrator: The federal government began national lending programs to help veterans buy new homes. Taking advantage of this opportunity, home builders promptly developed new subdivisions. Yet racial restrictions continued. A new development opened near 27th Avenue and Van Buren. One of the post members, Donald Gaylen, reported that the salesman had refused to sell a home to him. The post elected commander Martinez to investigate the situation.

Ray Martinez: I went out there, and they said, "Well, we don't sell to Mexicans."

Narrator: Weeks passed and Ray came every day on his break from his bus-driving job to request an audience with the owner of the company. Finally, the secretary demanded that he leave the premises.

Ray Martinez: I said, "Well, Miss, you tell Mr. Stewart that he's using federal money on F.H.A. housing, and we're going to place an injunction on the money and on this construction job. We're going to bring it to a halt because you cannot discriminate if you're using federal money. You say Mr. Stewart doesn't want to meet with me." I said, "He will meet with me possibly as early as next week, but it'll be in court. But he will meet with me." Well, I left.

Minnie Martinez: So when Ray came home, I says, "That Mr. Stewart keeps calling." "Oh," he says, "I know what he wants."

Ray Martinez: Sure enough, I got the - the phone rang within five minutes. It was Mr. Stewart. Says, "Ray, I want to tell you how sorry I am that I wasn't there to meet with you this afternoon." And he says, "You can come out tomorrow. We are selling to any Hispanic that comes up here."

Narrator: During this time, Post 41 members also raised funds and volunteered their time to build a home for their organization located in the heart of the historic Grant Park neighborhood.

Dr. Pete R. Dimas: Well, I understand the wages were a keg of beer after they were done. Is that true?

Lencho Othon: Yeah, I mean...

Narrator: The building's dedication took place in March of 1948. Ray Martinez's daughter attended the ceremony as a young girl.

Norma Kiermeyr: There was a Mass at Immaculate Heart, and then the priests came and they blessed the legion post there, and then there was -- they had a big platform built outside, and everybody was sitting there. The whole Hispanic community at that time just turned out. They had a flag-raising for the first time. All the members got on a rope, and then they all pulled it to raise the flag.

Narrator: The new building developed into an important community institution. The post sponsored local youth activities, and the women of the auxiliary helped operate a well baby clinic for several years.

Minnie Martinez: There's a lot of baby -- babies that needed some care. Some of the doctors and nurses volunteered their help. Once a week, I think, they had it at the post, and the mothers would take their children there and the doctors would examine them.

Narrator: The clinic ran until 1950, when other services, such as the new St. Monica's Hospital, opened in the area. The commitment of American Legion Post 41 to community service has lasted for over 50 years. The veterans' push for equality during the late 1940s would be one of many such civil rights movements to come in Phoenix .

Dr. Pete R. Dimas: These guys were the genesis of the baby boom. You move it down 20 years, 25 years, and what do you have? You have the social activism of the Chicano Movement. Many of these young people, the children of Post 41 members. There's always a legacy there.