By Missy Schrott | firstname.lastname@example.org
In the Alexandria of 1927, there were few places for African Americans to seek recreation and entertainment, according to Nelson E. Greene, Jr., president of the Departmental Progressive Club.
“There just wasn’t much for black families and black men to do,” Greene said. “Other than honkytonks,” he added with a chuckle.
Therefore, seven African American leaders in the city of Alexandria formed a club where black men could gather, socialize and interact with the community. Turning 90 this week, the Departmental Progressive Club is Alexandria’s oldest private social club.
“They started it because they wanted some wholesome entertainment for their families and themselves. I knew all but one of them,” Greene said as he looked up at framed photos of the founders in the DPC’s Members’ Room.
“Let’s see, I buried one, two, three, four, five of them,” Greene added, pointing to the photos of each corresponding member. Greene is also the manager of his family business, Greene Funeral Home.
The funeral home and a name were not the only things Greene inherited from his father, Nelson E. Greene Sr. The two were also both members of the DPC prior to his father’s death in 2014. For many men in the club, membership goes back generations, and for Greene, Jr., involvement with the DPC began long before he officially joined in the late 70s.
From delivering newspapers in the neighborhood as a paperboy, to watching his father play pinochle with members every afternoon, Greene grew up surrounded by the fellowship and influence of the Departmental Progressive Club.
“They were examples for me, so that was always very good,” Greene said. “And then to be here with my father at the same time as him was very important.”
The club is composed of 55 members, about half of whom live in Alexandria. The others commute from around the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia area for meetings and events. Members share the club and hold combined events with a Ladies’ Auxiliary of about 15 members.
When the club first began, it was located a block away from its current building, which was built on the corner of Gibbon and Royal streets in 1955. Greene said they are in the early stages of remodeling the interior of the building.
Since its establishment on Sept. 27, 1927, the DPC has been committed to community
involvement. All seven of its founders worked in different departments of the federal
government, thus determining the Departmental Progressive Club’s name.
Ninety years later, several of Alexandria’s prominent African American residents can still be found among the club’s members. Greene said that almost every black member of city council has been a member of the DPC. This includes Alexandria Councilors Willie Bailey and John Chapman.
“One of the reasons I joined is because I wanted to make sure this organization stayed alive,” Bailey said. “You don’t know where you’re going unless you know where you came from. … knowing how times were back then for African Americans and what these gentlemen had to do to start this club. … I think it’s fair that we do all we can to keep it alive because there’s history there.”
City Attorney Jim Banks, another city leader and DPC member, said one of the club’s strengths was its ability to adapt.
“I think for any predominantly African American organization that’s been in existence as long as it has, it’s changed over time as our social, cultural and political environment has changed,” Banks said.
For example, the DPC was very active during the civil rights era as a minority organization.
“It still has that value of trying to make sure everyone’s being treated fairly,” Bailey said, “but now it’s more towards doing things in the community, giving back, fellowship, bringing members into the club throughout Alexandria and giving them a little history lesson on the city and the club itself.”
The DPC holds regular meetings twice a month, but it often has additional events that get members out into the community, such as Mother’s Day programs, group trips to church and formal dances. The club is also involved with several other community organizations, including the Boys and Girls Club, American Red Cross and NAACP.
Bailey said he often coordinates joint service events between the DPC and his nonprofit, Firefighters and Friends to the Rescue. Next month, the two groups will join forces to hand out coats to underprivileged kids in Alexandria, and approaching Christmas, they will help collect toys to deliver to different Alexandria schools.
While the club has had a positive community impact throughout the years, both Bailey and Banks said some of their favorite memories are simply of spending time with other members.
“I’m in my early 50s, but every time I go there, and I see these gentlemen that have been around on this earth 20 to 30 more years than I have,” Bailey said. “I just enjoy being around them.”
“One of my old rec ball coaches is still a member of the club. He coached me when I was 8, 9, 10, 11 years old,” Bailey said. “Now, being able to talk to him, and being able to sit down, even sit down there at the bar and buy him a beer, it makes me feel good.”
Banks, who has been Alexandria’s city attorney for nine years and a DPC member for about four years, also commended the wisdom of older members.
“A lot of my fellow members are second or even third generation members of the club with very long Alexandria ties and history, so it’s really helpful for me to kind of have that historical perspective that I would not otherwise have,” Banks said.
Leading up to the 90th anniversary, the DPC has held several celebratory events, from family game nights to church services. The club has also welcomed back past club members to take part in the milestone. The main 90th anniversary gala will be held on Sept. 30 at the Waterford in Springfield.
“It’s an organization that has been resilient. It has been able to adapt; it has been able to remain relevant; it has continued to be something that people here in this community still think is important,” Banks said.
“Our pride is that we are the oldest black organization in the city other than some of the churches,” Greene said. “We’re it, and we’re still going strong, and look forward to go strong for a long time.”