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Historically black American Legion Post 160 remembers and looks forward

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Members of American Legion Post 160 stand outside of the post on May 24, 2019. From left to right are Rufus Huggins, Don Ensley, Kim Arlene Coy, Regina Wallace and Curtis Best. Also pictured is Coy's son, Khyle Ketchens.(Molly Urbina/The Daily Reflector)

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Karen Eckert
The Daily Reflector

Monday, May 27, 2019

There’s a not-so-well-known story about thousands of freed slaves who helped organize a parade around a Charleston, S.C., racetrack at the end of the Civil War to honor more than 260 fallen Union solders.

It’s a story that, over the years, has not been included in the history of Memorial Day. But some historians are now recognizing the 1865 event as one of the first-ever “Memorial Day” services. 

William Atkinson, a member of Greenville’s Pasico Norfleet American Legion Post 160, shared the story with some of his fellow post members who had gathered at their headquarters on Chestnut Street on Friday to discuss the holiday, their experiences in the Armed Forces and their membership in the post.

Some of the group had never heard the story before and said they were glad Atkinson had shared it with them.

When it comes to the role that African Americans have played in service to their country, longtime post member Regina Wallace said that she wants to know everything.

“I don’t want half the history told. I want all the history told,” said Wallace, one of only two women who belong to the group. 

Wallace said she served in the Women’s Army Corps, or “WACs,” in the Vietnam War era, as well as in the Army Reserve for a total of 16 years of service.

Post 160 members will celebrate Memorial Day locally by attending the 10:30 a.m. Memorial Day ceremony at the Town Common sponsored by the Pitt County Veterans Council.

Curtis Best, acting commander of Post 160 and a charter member, said he plans to be there.

“It is a day of respect and memory,” he said. “I don’t want to get it confused with Veterans Day, which is coming up in November.”

Many post members said that the meaning behind Memorial Day is even more special to them as a result of their being veterans themselves.

Best said he remembers seeing parades and other activities when he was growing up. Although he comes from a military family, he said he didn’t fully understand the importance of the holiday until he served in the Air Force himself during the Vietnam War.

Kim Arlene Coy, the second of the post’s two women members, served in the U.S. Coast Guard for six years, she said.

Until she joined the military, she said that, for her, the holiday was “just another day off” as it is for many Americans.

But her viewpoint has changed, she said. “Now that I’m a veteran, I think about the people who didn’t make it home.”

One of the youngest and newest members of the group, Coy served in the post-9/11 era. Her duties in the Coast Guard revolved around homeland defense and protecting the borders.

Rufus Huggins, another charter member, said that Memorial Day is one of the most important days of his life because on this day the rest of the nation recognizes the sacrifices made by men and women who served in the Armed Forces. Like Best, Huggins served in the Air Force, also during the Vietnam War.

“I love this country,” he said and added that he takes great pride in his military service.

Some post members said they appreciate the recognition that is also given to those still living.

Best said that just the other day at a local restaurant, another diner approached him as Best was about to pay for his meal and said, “I’m taking care of that.” Best said he was wearing his American Legion hat at the time.

Best said he remembers when soldiers returned from Vietnam and were spit on and called “baby killers,” so the positive attention that veterans receive today is especially appreciated. He said he likes it when people “say ‘thank you for your service’” or “offer to buy your meal.”

Each American Legion post has its own charter, Best said. Post 160, a historically black post, received its charter in the late 1970s. Its headquarters are in an old fire station next to Greenville’s Dream Park. The post leases the building from the City of Greenville and is responsible for its upkeep.

Charter members named the post in honor of Pasico Norfleet, who was the owner of the West End Tea Room in the historic Higgs neighborhood in the early to mid-20th century. That was before there was a cafeteria at C.M. Eppes School, Best said.

Among his many contributions to the community, Norfleet, along with his family, provided inexpensive meals and snacks to the students, Best said.

Norfleet, who was a World War I veteran, exhibited the kind of service to the community that the American Legion is all about, Best said.

“We understand, by being veterans, what service is,” said Don Ensley, another charter member and an Army veteran. Like Best and Huggins, he served during the Vietnam War.

One way that Post 160 serves others is by providing space at its headquarters for Kingdom Kids, a private nonprofit after-school program. The group uses the building on weekday afternoons and in the summer for a day camp.

In earlier years, when membership was stronger, the post was able to do a lot more, said Best.

Charter members said they remember when the post, through its food bank, was one of the largest providers of food to the community, second only to Meals on Wheels.

Post 160 has seen a decline in membership over the years, Best said. 

Currently there are 15 dues-paying members.

Best said that the charter and longtime members would like to see an increase in younger veterans, including women, in their post.

Coy is a welcome addition, said Best, and he looks forward to her recruiting others.

As for Coy, she said she is glad to find in American Legion Post 160 a group that “(makes) me feel like family.” 

Coy said that organizations like the American Legion play an important role for veterans as they return to civilian life because of the support and services they can provide.

She has learned that first-hand, she said.

Best said that the best way for someone to learn more about Post 160 is to attend a meeting.

The group meets at 7 p.m. on the second Thursday of each month at 1700 Chestnut St. and anyone is welcome. If a person wants to become a member of the post, he or she needs to bring his or her DD214 form, Best said.

Karen Eckert can be reached at 252-329-9565 or at keckert@reflector.com.

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