Louis “Boots” Lockhart was feeling positive about the turnout Saturday night even before the large hall at the American Legion on Chadwick Street began filling up.
“I think it’s going to be all right, better than I thought,” Lockhart said, as guests streamed through the door.
As the oldest member, Lockhart has seen better days at the historic Walter Robinson American Legion Post 450. During segregation, the post served as the gathering place for many black veterans and played host to such musical legends as Dizzy Gillepsie, Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway and Fats Domino.
“Ray Charles was here twice; I remember him,” Lockhart recalled.
While many years have gone by since then, the early spirit of the Legion seemed to come alive Saturday. With the backdrop of live music from the Red Velvet Jazz Band, blacks and whites from the community came together to socialize with one goal in mind: to preserve the past by saving one of Sewickley’s historic assets.
“This is a good example of the uniqueness of Sewickley,” said Stan Rideout, 87, one of the night’s honorees, who is the former executive director of the Sewickley Community Center and originator of the popular Come on Home weekend.
Established in the 1920s, the post is facing hard times in a down economy. The American Legion filed for bankruptcy in December after it was unable to pay thousands of dollars in mortgage debt. Saturday's fundraiser aimed to put a dent in the Legion’s $125,000 debt. It was unknown Saturday night how much was raised from the dinner and Chinese auction.
“We’re trying to raise the funds to cover some of the debt so we don’t lose the property,” said Lockhart.
“All we’re trying to do is keep this building open, and keep the place going for our kids and our grandkids,” added Henry Scales, financial officer.
As part of the fundraiser, Lockhart was honored alongside Rideout and Bettie Cole, who was unable to attend. The Legion presented the three with plaques. Rideout was joined by his wife, Vike. Cole’s daughter, Gwenyth, thanked everyone for recognizing her mother, who wrote a book about the history of blacks in the Sewickley Valley. She said her mother wanted her to express how much the Legion means.
"Don't let this go. There have been too many people, including my mother, who worked so hard," she said.
Geronimo Pratt, event promoter, organized the fundraiser after learning about the post’s troubles. He estimates more than 200 guests filled the ballroom, including descendants of Walter Robinson, who traveled to the event from Youngstown, OH.
Members of Sewickley’s old Post 4 also came out to offer support. Lockhart said black veterans weren’t permitted to join the whites-only post during segregation, which ultimately led them to form their own.
“We’re here to help the club out,” said Wally Beitsinger, 66, a Post 4 member who is now commander of the Leetsdale VFW.
U.S. Rep. Jason Altmire also offered his support, stopping by the post to speak to veterans prior to the home-cooked dinner.
“This is a wonderful example of the community coming together to support the cause of the men and women who have worn the uniform of this country … The American Legion in Sewickley is something we need to find a way to preserve,” Altmire said.
Chris Moore, host of WQED’s “Horizons,” said he's become a member of the post and encouraged others to do the same. A segment of Moore's show featuring the legion's plight was shown at the conclusion of the program.
Rideout said the outpouring from the community wasn't a surprise.
“Most certainly in a perfect world, Sewickley is tops,” Rideout said. “That’s why I hope we’re able to keep this place.”