(This is a refresh of an article that was originally published on this website May 14, 2009.)
I n 1932, African American military veterans in Akron, Ohio were granted a charter to establish an American Legion post there. Post No. 272, also known as the “John Fulton” Post, soon became a thriving center of the industrial city’s black community. Akron was cthe center of America’s rubber production industry, with General Tire, B.F. Goodrich, Firestone, and Goodyear all setting up headquarters there. Consequently, at around this time, Akron had a sizable African American population of over 14,000, or about 5.2% of its total population.
By 1937, there were numerous similar “colored units” of the American Legion in 35 cities of the United States. But while some applauded the progress symbolized by this growing number of African American posts, others protested that the United States military was still racially segregated during World War II.
Always active even in wartime, the John Fulton Post organized an African American basketball team that won the Akron City Basketball Championship for the 1944-45 season. Little is yet known about this team, except for the information available to us from this photograph in our historical archive.
What we do know is that basketball made a difference in terms of engaging youth through the periods of unemployment and under-education that prevailed among African Americans in Akron, the country’s leading rubber manufacturing hub.
We also know that the American Legion, according to its website, was “chartered by Congress in 1919 as a patriotic, war-time veterans organization, devoted to mutual helpfulness.” And, just like active duty armed forces, from its beginnings the American Legion was racially segregated too. African American soldiers continued to be assigned to separate military units until the end of the Korean War in 1953, despite orders from President Harry Truman in 1948 to racially integrate every branch of the armed services.
Regardless of this, Akron’s new American Legion post apparently was more racially open-minded than other units with regard to the country’s prevailing Jim Crow restrictions. The Chicago Defender published this observation about the annual American Legion Parade in 1933 at Soldier’s Field in Chicago:
The American Legion draws the color line—no doubt about it. But there was no evidence of it in the Ohio delegation. Black men and white marched side by side in the Ohio contingent, and they received a big hand from the crowd. One post from Akron had at least 10 members of the Race in it. And they weren’t segregated either.
Members of Post No. 272 performed civic duties and actively pursued various projects whose aim was to help improve working conditions within the black community. The unit also funded services and programs—in connection with the city’s Recreation Department—toward the education and active engagement of local students.
These services were vital, since there were “a great number of Negroes on relief in proportion to their population than is true of whites,” according to the 1937 Akron Negro Directory. “The reason for this difference is that Negroes are largely concentrated in those economic groups which have contributed heavily to the rolls of unemployment such as unskilled labor and domestic service workers.” This was true in every American industrial city. “Some of the reasons for this condition are racial discriminations in lay-offs and re-employment,” the directory continues. “Let us hope that the future holds brighter prospects towards inter-racial understanding in Akron and thereby barriers will be broken down which will make Akron a better city in which to live.”
In the 1930s, Ohio had about 22 African American college graduates per 10,000 black residents, about the same percentage as New York, Kansas, and Arizona, but with only 167 black high school graduates during the previous five years, the state lagged far behind Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Texas.
Horace Bell, head coach of the American Legion Post No. 272 basketball team, was formerly the executive secretary of the National Urban League’s Negro Welfare Association, a position to which he was appointed in 1941. Bell, a graduate of East High School in Akron, had earned a B.S. degree in Recreation and Physical Education in 1939 from the University of Minnesota, where he was a football star. Before his selection to the Negro Welfare Association position, Bell was at the Phyllis Wheatley Settlement House in Minneapolis and then became a physical education instructor at Florida A&M, where his brother was involved with the football program. Bell came back to Akron in order to help coach and mentor local youth.
After the end of World War II, the John Fulton Post, which held meetings on Wednesdays and every second Sunday, continued wartime efforts to “obtain better positions for Negroes” with activism that soon began to pay off. “Their first victory occurred when in 1949 they were able to secure a job for Clarence Harris as the first Negro truck driver for a local milk company,” according to Akron historian Shirla Robinson McClain in Contributions of Blacks in Akron: 1825-1975, her doctoral dissertation at the University of Akron.
It may not sound like much today, but this step required a bitter battle with the milkman’s union, local dairies, local white-run milk distributors, and the involvement of the black labor relations groups. These actions followed the lead of a similar case in Chicago a few years earlier, in which support for such an initiative “spread through appeals to consumers made by churches, the press, member organizations of the Chicago Council of Negro Organizations, and sound trucks in the neighborhoods to cancel all orders for milk from white drivers and other stores using Jim Crow drivers,” according to Lionel Kimble in A New Deal for Bronzeville: Housing, Employment, and Civil Rights in Black Chicago, 1935-1955.
This week, NBA superstar LeBron James, the greatest basketball player ever to come from Akron, visited his hometown with First Lady Michelle Obama to promote the importance of college education. The task is not easy because, as history makes clear, the issue of local under-education of African Americans has been generations in the making. Yet all these decades later, basketball is still making a difference in the former rubber manufacturing capital.
 Akron Negro Directory, 1937