American Legion, Jefferson Post #15 - Records 1919-1988
By Jacob F. Lee
Many of The Filson's recent additions to its twentieth century collection are the records of local clubs and recreational organizations. Consisting of meeting minutes, correspondence, and other miscellaneous items, the collections are often routine in content.
The American Legion, Jefferson Post #15 collection features materials similar to the other clubs’ records, but unlike most of them, it also opens a window into a little-known aspect of Louisville’s history following the First World War. The Jefferson Post records show, first, that before and immediately after World War I a small, but active, community of political radicals operated in Louisville and, second, that the American Legion and the federal government felt threatened enough by this group to organize and take action against them.
In 1917, the United States entered the World War, and President Woodrow Wilson’s goal of “100 percent Americanism” combined with the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia caused many Americans to fear the spread of communism. A backlash against social and political radicalism quickly spread within the United States. When the war ended in 1918, the first Red Scare was well under way, and anti-radical sentiment swept across the nation. With laws in place to suppress dissent, the federal government arrested and deported aliens, dissidents, and radicals. However, the Justice Department was not the only body operating against radicals and immigrants. The American Legion endorsed the government crackdown on radicals and immigrants and was one of the most active among nongovernmental groups in investigating suspected radicals. Although much of the anti-radical activity was limited to large cities, especially New York and Chicago, and areas with particularly active radical communities, like the Pacific Northwest and Wisconsin, The Filson’s Jefferson Post #15 records indicate that the American Legion and federal agents conducted similar operations in Louisville. On July 8, 1919, at Jefferson Post’s first meeting, the founders laid out a strong anti-radical and anti-alien platform. Endorsing the language of the national American Legion caucus, the Jefferson Post denounced Bolshevism and un-Americanism in all forms and demanded the deportation of all “alien slackers,” those immigrants who had not volunteered for military service during the war. In a statement given to The Courier-Journal on July 22, Jefferson Post Commander Samuel H. McMeekin further stated that the post would not tolerate anarchism and that “draft evaders and pro-Germanism will be uncovered by the American Legion in this city.”
The American Legion’s actions went beyond rhetoric and support of governmental actions. They also investigated Louisvillians with unpopular political views and condemned national figures, who they believed were either “Bolsheviks” or who had shown too little patriotism during the war. Jefferson Post focused many of its activities on the German-American community in the city, investigating numerous businessmen and even John Stilli, former pastor of St. John’s German Evangelical Church. In October 1919, due to American Legion protests and boycotts of Stilli and his followers, Stilli was forced to close the People’s Church of Louisville, which he founded after leaving St. John’s. When controversial lecturers and musicians visited Louisville, Jefferson Post often urged boycotts of their speeches and performances. In November 1919, the Legion protested an upcoming performance by Austrian violist Fritz Kreisler, who had briefly served in the Royal Austro-Hungarian Army. Due to the effects of Legion complaint, Kreisler cancelled his Louisville concert.
In 1919 and 1920, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, under advisement of Bureau of Investigation director J. Edgar Hoover, authorized the arrest of over 10,000 alleged communists, socialists, anarchists, aliens, and labor union officials. On January 2-3, 1920, the Justice Department raided the homes and offices of radicals across the country, arresting thousands. Unknown to historians, though, was that federal agents made arrests in Louisville. The Jefferson Post records only hint at the arrests in a resolution informing “the Government at Washington [of] the unanimous desire of all American Legion men that these alien plotters be tried at once and if convicted that they be deported.” However, an examination of local newspapers revealed that the government arrested nineteen radicals, mostly socialists, in Louisville and then released all but three – Albert Gander, Ignatius Hager, and Ferdinand Zimmerer. It is presently unknown if Gander, Hager, and Zimmerer were convicted and deported, but Jefferson Post had little doubt that they were in fact “alien plotters.”
Although radicalism in Louisville seems to have ended with the federal raids, the American Legion continued to be diligent in its investigation and criticism of suspected “Bolsheviks.” One of the last references to radicals in the Jefferson Post collection was from 1924, when activist Scott Nearing visited Louisville. Nearing gave a speech criticizing the inequities of capitalism and condemning sedition laws across the country. Jefferson Post passed a resolution shortly thereafter denouncing Nearing’s statements as “radical” and “dangerous,” concluding, “We believe in free speech but not the abuse of free speech.”
The importance of the Jefferson Post records is not their in depth documentation of Louisville’s radical community and the efforts taken to squash it. Instead, the importance lies in what it suggests about this era in Louisville history. Through this collection, the outline of a larger story is revealed. Further investigation of Louisville newspapers and Justice Department records in the National Archives might reveal a more nuanced understanding of the anti-radical, anti-immigrant sentiments following World War I, but the American Legion, Jefferson Post #15 Records offers an initial insight into the first Red Scare in Louisville.
The Filson Historical Society