TUCSON, Ariz. — Decades ago, the patrons of Fort Huachuca’s “Colored Officers Club” fought an uphill battle for equality in the U.S. Army.
Today, another uphill battle looms to save their old clubhouse from a bulldozer.
Volunteer efforts to restore the structure — built for black Army officers during the segregationist World War II era — are moving so slowly the Army aims to pull the plug on the project if progress isn’t made by fall, a recent memo shows.
The Southwest Association of Buffalo Soldiers, a group dedicated to honoring the earliest black Army troops, has been trying for a decade or so to raise the $1.4 million it would take to fix up the club, located on the Army post in Sierra Vista about 75 miles southeast of Tucson.
The building once hosted performances by black celebrities such as singers Lena Horne and Pearl Bailey. Prizefighter Joe Louis was a guest while stationed at the fort during World War II.
At the time, Fort Huachuca was home to more than 20,000 black troops, the largest black encampment in history, experts say. The fort was chosen specifically because it was isolated, which kept black troops away from white population centers.
A 1998 report by a Tucson historical consulting firm found the club is eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places, the federal list of sites worthy of preservation.
But according to the Army, volunteers in charge of restoration have made little progress and stand little chance of future success.
“Fort Huachuca strongly feels that they have provided every opportunity to the (group) to succeed,” the memo said, but volunteers have “been non-responsive on multiple occasions to our good-faith efforts.”
At this point, it appears the project has “no reasonable likelihood of success.”
Demetria Warren, a vice-president of the volunteer group, disputes that the project is a lost cause
“We’ve made a lot of progress,” she said, though it may not have been documented to the Army’s satisfaction.
Like other nonprofits, the group was hit hard by dwindling donations during the recession, but is looking to reinvigorate its fundraising, Warren said.
“We are trying to do our best. We want to work with the Army and move ahead.”
The Army memo, signed in December by the fort’s then-commander, said the volunteer group reneged on many of the promises made to lease the site.
For example, the group was to submit progress reports, complete at least $200,000 in documented repairs and correct the most serious structural problems by March 2008.
When the deadline came and went, an extension was granted until May 2010. But many problems remain uncorrected, the memo said.
Since volunteers could barely raise the first $200,000 toward repairs, it said, “it seems very unlikely that they would be able to raise the (other) $1.2 million,” it said.
The group now must come up with a plan to fix problems and prove it has the money to do so. Otherwise, the Army will recommend the lease not be renewed when it expires in September.
The group’s website envisions the old club as a national research and education center with a black military history museum.
If that doesn’t happen, the Army will look at other ways to honor black soldiers, the memo said.
Arizona Daily Star