By Mike Kinney
We’ve barely entered Veterans Memorial Hall in Richmond before its longtime president, Art Hall, proudly points out a plaque on the wall gifted by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter. The plaque commemorates the 761st Tank Battalion, nicknamed “Black Panthers,” which was the first majority-African American tank battalion to fight in WWII and proved highly successful in combat.
Hunt, himself a Vietnam War veteran, doesn’t tire of talking about this plaque — and for good reason. Some of the original Black Panthers not only lived in Richmond after the war, they were among the founders of the Richmond Veterans Memorial Hall, which was established in October 1946 and was initially located on Macdonald Avenue where the Food Co. grocery store stands today.
Shortly after sharing this history, Hunt steps outside the veterans center, now located at 23rd Street and McBryde Avenue. He walks over to the aging, well-known WWI-era cannon in the parking lot, and smiles for a photo. It’s a picture that’s worth a thousand words: A veteran from Richmond standing alongside a distinctive monument, with a heavily-trafficked 23rd Street in the backdrop. Both that cannon, and Hunt, who has spent decades helping to ensure the survival of the Veterans Memorial Hall, serve as highly visible reminders in the community of the ultimate sacrifices made to preserve our freedoms and way of life.
“Not only do we serve our veteran community here, we serve the entire Richmond community here with the many events and activities,” Hunt says.
The center is currently used for weddings, quinceaneras, town hall meetings, as an election polling station, and for food and clothing banks. The Richmond Police Department uses the Hall for public meetings, as does the 23rd Street Merchants Association. Nonprofits like Mothers Against Senseless Killing use the space for banquets. Such events regularly bring the Richmond community in close contact with its native veterans.
During a time when many of the veterans who served during WWII and the Korean War have left town or are no longer alive, Hunt is largely credited for the continued vibrancy at the Hall. After taking over as manager in 1992, Hunt decided along with the Board to start opening the center up more to the community. That has included offering up its space at affordable rates for local residents, and also opening the center for such events as Trick or Treat on 23rd Street during Halloween, the Cinco de Mayo Festival, and Zumba classes.
“The community is our lifeline and we get comments like, ‘Please don’t shutdown this place,’ because it really represents what Richmond is all about,” Hunt said. “We have many low income neighborhoods in the area, so we make our prices to rent our hall extremely affordable…when people come here to do their events, we will work with them based on what they can afford.”
For Hunt, community is everything. He was raised in Richmond since 1942, attending Stege Elementary, Harry Ells Junior High and El Cerrito High School. He joined the Navy from 1962-1964, then re-enlisted in 1967 as a Seabee and went to Vietnam, where he was wounded in 1969. He was sent to Oak Knoll hospital in Oakland and discharged that same year.
His service to his community never stopped. Longtime Richmond Councilmember Nat Bates, who has known Hunt for over 50 years, described Hunt as a champion for veterans rights and resources.
“He is always organizing food and clothes drives for the vets and the needy in the community,” Bates said. “He is always accessible to our veterans and the community.“
Neighbors of the Veterans Memorial Hall share Bates’ sentiment, calling him a good man who gets things accomplished for the community.
“Art Hunt has been working very hard to keep the Veterans Hall open and available to the community,” said Diego Garcia, a community advocate and owner of Leftside Printing on 23rd St. “He is very open-minded about events and programs there.”
One fun fact about Hunt? Years ago, his friend John Thomas, a retired San Francisco 49er, got Hunt to try out for the 49ers team.
“Well that didn’t work out,” Hunt said, “So I went to work for the US Postal Service.”
He carried mail for 17 years before being promoted as a supervisor at a local office in Richmond, and later as a manager in the postal system in Benicia. He retired in 1992, the same year he took on the managing role at the veterans hall.
Regardless of his service to the nation and also to Richmond, it is Hunt who appears most grateful.
“My family moved from the South to Richmond in 1941,” he said. “I know no where else but Richmond. I have raised my family here. Simply put, I love Richmond.”