At the close of World War I, the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) was the only centralized veterans’ organization prepared to help returning soldiers re-enter civilian life and to assist the families of the deceased. The American Legion formed soon after the war in order to serve veterans returning from Europe. Minnesota’s department of the Legion answered the call, creating programs that assisted veterans and led the way for the organization.
As the American Legion was being set up at a caucus in Paris in March 1919, Minnesotans had just begun their own veterans’ organization, known then as the Loyal Legion. They quickly changed their name to the American Legion to align with the larger group and organized delegates to go to a caucus in St. Louis in May. Those delegates secured Minneapolis as the site of the first national convention, scheduled for November.
In the period between the St. Louis Caucus and the convention, the Legion organized its Minnesota branch. After a temporary committee headed by Harrison Fuller was organized, member numbers rose. By November, the state had 35,000 members and 360 posts; Minnesota led the country in membership. While much of the early work was administrative, it helped veterans get war-risk insurance and legal advice.
The Minneapolis Convention was held over three days at multiple sites along Nicollet and Hennepin Avenues, in the heart of the city’s downtown district. The gathering was productive. The Legion’s members approved a constitution; set up a legislative committee to lobby for veterans’ interests; created a Women’s Auxiliary; and passed several measures about the group’s platform. Most important, they established that the American Legion’s main duty was to help disabled veterans.
African Americans joined the Legion in its early days and attended the Minneapolis convention. The national organization’s racist policy, however, allowed state and local posts to exclude non-whites. Members organized Minnesota’s first Legion location for African Americans, the Leslie Lawrence Post, in St. Paul in May 1922. (The state’s first integrated post did not form until 1946.)
After the convention, the Minnesota branch of the American Legion was made permanent, with Fuller at its head. The organization began to implement programs to benefit veterans and their families. In addition to providing war risk insurance assistance, the Legion helped members access benefits provided by the State Bonus Bill of 1919. Later, it would investigate delays in payments and recommend improvements.
At the national level, Minnesota Legion members played a leading role in passing the Sweet Bill of 1921. This law consolidated all veterans’ affairs under the Veterans Bureau. Previously, those services had been scattered among various agencies, leading to communication breakdowns and inefficiency.
Later in that year, the Minnesota American Legion Hospital Association was organized. This program sought to provide all ex-servicemen and their dependents with medical care, free of cost. The Minnesota delegation to the New Orleans Convention, held in 1922, proposed that the hospitals leased by the government for the care of veterans (many of which were unfit, under-funded, and outside government control) should be reformed. As a result, the Veterans Bureau was given direct control of such hospitals.
While the Minnesota Legion effected much change, especially at the policy level, a great deal of the hands-on work was conducted by the women of the Minnesota Legion Auxiliary. The Auxiliary was established at its own convention in Minneapolis in November 1920, making it the first state auxiliary convention in the nation. It quickly created a hospital visitation program in which volunteers visited patients and made lists of the veterans’ needs. They relayed this information through appropriate channels so that those needs could be met.
The Auxiliary set up an artificial-flower manufacturing enterprise for discharged patients unfit for heavy work and later participated in a farm-colony program. Finally, the Auxiliary undertook a robust child welfare program focusing on education, legislation, and material relief. Together with the Minnesota Legion, the Auxiliary’s children’s project was a national effort.
In its early years, the Minnesota branch of the American Legion and its affiliates focused on providing relief to Minnesota veterans and their families. By the mid-1920s, they were succeeding in this endeavor and proving themselves an example for other Legion departments.
American Legion. First Annual Convention: Minneapolis, Nov. 10–11 & 12, 1919. [MN: N.p., 1919?].
“Colored Veterans Eligible.” St. Paul Appeal, September 6, 1919.
Gimmestad, Bernard A. Legion 50: The American Legion, the American Legion Auxiliary, and the 40 and 8 in Minnesota, 1919–1969. Minneapolis: Ross & Haines, 1970.
“The Leslie Lawrence Post.” St. Paul Northwestern Bulletin, May 27, 1922.
“Minneapolis: The Doings In and About the Great ‘Flour City.’” St. Paul Appeal, November 15, 1919.
“New American Legion Post Is Formed in St. Paul.” Minneapolis Spokesman, January 25, 1946.
Pencak, William. For God & Country: the American Legion, 1919–1941. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1989.
Rumer, Thomas A. The American Legion, an Official History, 1919–1989. New York: M. Evans, 1990.
Between November 10 and 12, 1919, Minneapolis hosts the first national convention for the American Legion, underscoring Minnesota’s leading role in the early Legion movement. During the convention, the Legion’s constitution is ratified, several committees are set up, and the basic Legion platform is established.
The American Legion is established at the Paris Caucus in France.
Minnesota’s Loyal Legion changes its name to the American Legion to align itself with the national organization.
The American Legions holds a caucus in St. Louis. The Minnesota delegation secures Minneapolis as the site for the first national Legion convention.
Theodor Peterson Post becomes the first American Legion post in Minnesota.
The Minnesota department holds its first convention, during which a temporary constitution is approved and Harrison Fuller is elected department commander.
The United States Congress charters the American Legion.
The first edition of Minnesota’s first American Legion newspaper, the Hennepin County Central Committee Legionnaire, is published.
The first Legion convention is held in Minneapolis.
The Minnesota branch of the American Legion holds an auxiliary convention—the first in the nation. Helen Hielscher is elected department president.
Due to the efforts of the Legion, the U.S. Veterans’ Bureau, forerunner of the Veterans’ Administration, is established.
Legion members organize the Leslie Lawrence Post, the first Minnesota location for African Americans, in St. Paul.
The Minnesota American Legion Hospital Association forms. The association aims to provide medical care to veterans and their dependents at little or no cost.