Celebrating 'Peerless' determination, good times, camaraderie

The Baltimore Sun

Decades before African-Americans were allowed on the same playing fields with white players, ages before the likes of Julius Erving and Michael Jordan made black men the undisputed kings of the basketball court, a dozen or so athletic young black men from Eastport gathered together family and friends to form a basketball team of their own.

It was the early 1920s when Henry Blunt, Ernest Booth, Paul Cook, Clarence "Fish" Turner, Harry Butler, Walter Turner, Harrison Little, Theo Chase, Punch Jackson and Thomas Crowdy dubbed themselves the Peerless Rens.

The "Peerless" part of the name is clear; the meaning of "Rens," known only to players who now shoot hoops on that great basketball court in the sky, is not, although there is some speculation that "Rens" may have stood for "Renaissance."

Punch Jackson recalled in a memoir that he wanted more than to play an occasional game of basketball. At age 25, his dream was to establish a social club for the disenfranchised black community in Eastport.

Spearheaded by Jackson, the transformation of basketball team to community-involved social club is a story of uncommon dedication. In 1948, the basketball team officially became a social organization: the Peerless Rens Club.

The club, which will celebrate its 60th anniversary on Friday night, offered a place to go on weekend evenings for a drink, conversation and maybe a hand or two of cards. It established a tradition of community involvement that extends to today: donating sporting equipment to neighborhood kids, supplying food baskets to the needy and maintaining a safe, comfortable destination for members and guests.

Asked why the club idea worked, Punch Jackson wrote, "Members took pride in the club; they wanted it to work, so they worked for it."

At first the men met at Eastport Elementary School, paid a weekly dues of $1 at a time when their average weekly take-home pay was $30. Because of their commitment to the club, members were able to purchase what was described as a "swampy lot down the street" at 4th Street and Chester Avenue.

The lot sat vacant, neighbors complaining about "the empty hole, the frogs and the mosquitoes," until Jackson and his wife, Myrtle, made an uncommon sacrifice: To secure a loan to enable building to start, they put up their own home for collateral.

The first level of the building was completed in 1955, and inspired by the Jacksons, club members paid off a 10-year loan in nine years. The second story, also secured when the Jacksons again put up their home for collateral, was added in 1966.

Today, the more than 100-member Peerless Rens Club is housed in an attractive two-story brick building at 406 Chester Ave.

"This is the only African-American social club left in the Annapolis/Anne Arundel County area," said Carroll Hynson Jr., owner of Image Power, a local marketing business, and a new club member. What he especially likes, he said, is when business calls him away, which it does a great deal of the time, the club allows him to share a "camaraderie with people he grew up with" in a kind of "family atmosphere."

"Peerless Rens Club was kind of an Eastport thing," said Hynson, explaining that he and people from all over the county went to Bates High School, the segregated black high school in the county. When the club was in need of rejuvenation, Hynson and some of his friends from other parts of the county joined, making it "less of an Eastport thing, and a more meaningful Annapolis thing."

Ronald Booth of Eastport, whose father, Ernest Booth, was one of the club founders, said that the club "inspired" him as a teenager. He remembers going to the teen dances, taking trips to Carrs Beach and attending picnics sponsored by the club. Today he lives in the family home just down the street from the clubhouse and enjoys "working for a common goal for the community," like preparing food baskets and sponsoring basketball teams for neighborhood youngsters.

Another tradition that has endured is the good soul food -- fried chicken, potato salad, crab cakes, green beans, sometimes pigs' feet and chitterlings -- prepared and served by club members. Punch was famous for his crab cakes, said Norma Jenkins, a two-year club member, whose mother and sister were members of the club's women's auxiliary, the Renettes.

In the last few years, the Renettes have merged with the club to become full members. Once a sewing circle that included Myrtle Jackson, the Renettes have joined the main body of the club -- just in time to help coordinate the 60th anniversary celebration.

Friday's gala will begin at 7 p.m. at the Annapolis Doubletree Hotel. Dress is semiformal. Entertainment will include Harold Melvin's Blue Notes, vocalist Sharron Paige, the Intruders' Review, vocalists from Washington, D.C., and the Motown sounds of Raw Hand. Tickets cost $60 in advance. No tickets will be sold at the door. For information, call 443-336-8025.

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