In front of a photograph of James Fuller, killed in Viet Nam, Commander Charles Spivey presents a certificate to his brother, John. Photo by Heidi Randhava

In a heartfelt ceremony on March 1 at the Evanston Public Library, members of VFW Snell Post 7186 honored Evanston residents who served their country in wars now ended and family members of those killed and took note of others who are currently in the country’s armed forces.

The exhibit, facilitated by Jill Skwerski and M. Halka, had been moved from the second floor to the community room for the closing ceremony, consisted of reminders of the veterans’ lives – a telegram announcing a death, a photo and a photograph of the inscription on the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., newspaper clippings about the death of an Evanston soldier.  

William Petty, who served in the 82nd Airborne in 1965-66, gave the history of the Post, named for Technical Sergeant William Benjamin Snell. Technical Sergeant Snell was killed in action in 1943, the first black soldier from Evanston to die in North Africa during World War II. He is buried there.

Born in South Carolina in 1919, Mr. Snell was a promising heavyweight boxer before joining the army in 1942. As a boxer, he was hired to spar with Joe Louis prior to his fight with Bob Pastor – a fight Mr. Louis won with a knockout in the 11th round. While stationed at Fort Blanding, Fla., Technical Sgt. Snell helped break the color barrier by being the first black man to fight a white man, Tommy Gomez, in that state.

The VFW Post that bears his name was formed in 1946, with the Emerson Street YMCA its meeting place. In 1967, when the Emerson Street YMCA was sold, the post moved to Fleetwood-Jourdain Community Center, 1655 Foster St.

“It’s an honor to be in an organization that bears his name,” Mr. Petty concluded.

Gerri Sizemore of the Snell Post Auxiliary, Commander Clifford Washington and Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin each spoke about the Post and its importance to the community.

“I fondly remember [Allen] Bo Price and the many things he did for the youth of this community,” Ms. Sizemore said. She said she remembers visiting relatives in Evanston in the summertime and seeing Mr. Price practicing with his drill team at the Emerson Street Y. She became involved in the Snell Post Auxiliary, as “the ladies were invited to the post 30 years or more” ago.

A Vietnam veteran, retired post Cmdr. Washington said, “Vietnam was hell, as all wars are. When bullets are coming, you shoot back, and when they stop, you see the dead and the injured and the first thing you do is thank God you are still alive. Then you take out a lighter or match and try to burn the leeches off.” He said when he returned to the U.S., he met Mr. Price and joined Snell Post, becoming the first black commander of a VFW post.

“For the men and women who did not make it back, I am honored to stand here in tribute,” he said.

Mr. Suffredin said Mr. Price and the late Byron Wilson introduced him “to the needs of the people in the community.” He added, “Today, we have troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia. We have some people who are really stretched – doing a second or third tour of duty. … Some come back with serious injuries.” He noted that Snell Post is more multicultural than most and praised the members for their contributions to the ceremonies on Memorial Day and Veterans Day. “This post is one of the shining lights of Evanston.”

Mayor Stephen Hagerty said his maternal grandfather had died in World War II before his mother was born, so she never had met her father. The March 1 ceremony, he said, “is the end of Black History Month, but not the end of black history. … Not a day goes by that I am not appreciative of the things that are done in this community.”

Rick Davis, a veteran of the Vietnam War, suffers from Parkinson’s disease because of his exposure to Agent Orange. A Marine, he was sent to the Demilitarized Zone, where he was in charge of registering and processing the bodies of the servicemen and women killed in Vietnam, preparing them to be shipped home.

He said when people ask him about war, he responds with three questions: “Are you willing to give up your current life? Are you willing to put your life at risk? Are you willing to kill another human being?” He concluded, “It’s an honor to be here,” he said. “It gives me excitement to think there’s a better future.”

Snell Post Commander Charles Spivey described the abrupt changes life in the army in wartime brings: “You’re 18 years old and people are shouting at you and they put you on a plane and ship you 5,000 miles away. The next thing you know, you’re on a helicopter in the jungle.”

He presented certificates to family members of some of those killed in action: John Fuller, whose brother, James, was killed in Vietnam; Catherine Johnson, whose brother Algie Lovett was killed in World War II; and members of the family of Thomas Garnett, who fought and was killed in World War I. He also presented a certificate recognizing Mr. Suffredin for his contributions to the Post.  

Recounting some of the history of black servicemen, Cmdr. Spivey said 186,000 black men fought in the American Civil War, for the most part under white leaders. Reflections on the lives of those who fought for this country, he said, shows “the need to continue to fight for voting rights, which are being diminished.”