After 55 years, Post 263 looks to a Legion home of its own

The Baltimore Sun

From the time they started meeting in a Catonsville basement 55 years ago, members of the American Legion Jackson & Johnson Memorial Post No. 263 have wanted to build their own headquarters.

The post's members socialize and entertain in an old corner store in the 100 block of Winters Lane, which is the main street in the historically black neighborhood. The building appears on the verge of collapse and has never been big enough for monthly meetings. When all 189 members meet once a month, they must gather at the Banneker Center across the street.

But by the end of the year, that won't be a problem anymore.

With a bank loan and a surge in dues-paying members, the post has commissioned a $700,000 two-story building to be constructed near the current site. The new center, which will be 3,500 square feet on the bottom floor and 1,000 square feet upstairs, will contain a recreation lounge, a kitchen and a banquet room that will double as meeting space.

"Being the first commander, I'm really happy that the Lord let me live long enough to see what I'm seeing," said Upshur S. Webb, 81, of Catonsville. "I tell the commander now, I say, 'Man, get this thing up while I'm still living.'"

The American Legion, a social and community service organization for veterans and their families, was chartered by Congress in 1919. It boasts 3 million members and 15,000 posts worldwide. In Maryland, the legion has 157 posts and 81,000 members.

When Post No. 263 was formed in 1952, it had 15 members - the minimum needed for an American Legion charter, Webb said. All the members were black; there was already a predominantly white post in Catonsville, Webb said, although he does not remember local legion posts being officially segregated at the time. "It just worked out that way," he said. "We live in a black neighborhood."

The post was named for two black Catonsville World War II soldiers, Charles Jackson and Henry Johnson. Both died while serving in the Army: Jackson in Italy and Johnson when his ship was torpedoed in the Pacific as he was returning home.

To this day, No. 263 is a predominantly black post. Over the years, it has made itself known in Catonsville, with its softball games, weekend dances and charity efforts that include scholarships for local college-bound students. The new building will increase membership and the scope of fundraising events, meaning more benefits for the community, legionnaires said.

"It should have happened a long time ago," said member and Army veteran Leroy Stanton, 65, of Baltimore. "But it'll do the neighborhood good. It'll do us good."

Until this year, the post never had enough money for a new building or enough members to go after large amounts of funding, legionnaires said.

The thousands of dollars the post raises every year mostly go to scholarships and charity, said First Vice Commander Alvin Jenkins, 78, leaving little left over for building projects.

"It's all about giving and helping," Jenkins said. "We just want to pay the bills. That's all we want."

The new building will mostly be paid for with a $500,000 loan from Susquehanna Bank, which legionnaires said can be paid back easily with the post's increasing membership. Since last summer, 80 new members - veterans and their families - have joined the post.

"We plan on breaking that record in the coming year with the new building," Jenkins said, adding that many prospective members are waiting until it is complete. "Now that they see the direction we're moving in, they're going to join."

Most of the post's legionnaires are veterans from the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, but members said they expect more to join after they come home from the war in Iraq. The post has only two members who served in Iraq, both women in the National Guard.

In addition to increased revenue from membership dues, money will come from renting out the new building for weddings, parties and business meetings, said John Davis Copeland, 78, a past post commander. The money will help pay back the bank loan but will also be used for community and charity events, Copeland said.

The loan came about after a broker led the post to Melaine Levy, vice president of Susquehanna Bank's business banking division. When Levy visited the post headquarters, she saw past the ramshackle exterior to the old photos of soldiers lining the walls, she said.

"They were all still able to come together and still socialize and hang on to their history," she said. "It really meant a lot to me. ... I'm always going to look at the credit, see if the credit makes sense, but if I can do something along the way to help an organization, that's the gravy."

The loan came none too soon, said Myron Gaines, builder and consultant for the new building. The old building is deteriorating, he said.

"It's existing beyond its life expectancy," said Gaines, president of Reisterstown-based Tomorrow's Development Corp. "If something isn't done soon, it could be life-threatening."

The post's current building, at 151 Winters Lane, is 148 years old, Webb said. It will be torn down for parking space for the new building.

When Webb was growing up in Catonsville, the building was a small grocery store and confectionery with a saloon attached and a beer garden outside. It also housed a woman named Katherine Williams and her family, who owned the store, Webb said.

After the post moved from its first basement headquarters to a church and then a room over a different grocery store, it started renting the Williams store for meetings in 1967. Twelve years later, after Katherine Williams died, the post bought the building, Webb said.

Aside from its structural problems, the building does not have air conditioning and its furnace needs repairs, legionnaires said.

The building's problems don't stop dozens of members and their families and guests from stopping by to drink and relax after work. On Friday and Saturday nights, a legionnaire acts as a disc jockey and community members are invited in to dance.

A sign on the wall puts the building's capacity at 53. Almost every DJ night, some visitors are turned away, post members said. But that won't be a problem in the new building.

"I've been waiting for a long time for a new building, and I'll be as happy as a jaybird in church when it's complete, because it's time to move on," Copeland said.

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