In the 1920s and '30s, when Harlem landlords began charging higher rents, tenants would often have parties to help raise enough money. Rent parties, popular during the Great Depression, typically involved live jazz or blues music, alcoholic drinks and plenty of home-cooked food — all in exchange for a small contribution.
Organizers at the Walter Robinson American Legion Post 450 in , a longtime gathering place for many black veterans, are planning their own kind of on Saturday at the historic landmark.
Faced with hard times in a down economy, Saturday's fundraiser will include a home-cooked meal, a live jazz band, and hope, said James Fisher, post commander, that enough money can be raised to save the post.
“I’m not sure how many people are going to show up,” Fisher said. “The hall holds 350. I hope 400 show up.”
The American Legion filed for bankruptcy in December after it was unable to pay more than $100,000 owed in back mortgage payments. Established in the 1920s, the post on Chadwick Street has a significant history in Sewickley, with a strong tradition of black veterans, including from the area.
After years of declining membership and financial issues, Fisher said, the post is fighting to raise the $125,000 it needs to keep the post open. Legion leaders have a meeting with on Feb. 15, he said, to create a plan on how to repay what's owed. They are relying on the campaign to help make a dent in the debt.
"It'll be awesome if it works out," Fisher said.
In addition to finding support from the community through the fundraiser, Fisher said, Legion leaders also plan to raise money through hall rentals, boosting membership and seeking .
Despite having a full-time job, saving the legion has become personal for Fisher, who took over the post in June. The post has been in Fisher’s family for generations, beginning with his grandfather, Moses Fisher. His father, James J. Fisher, is a longtime member. His mother, Beverly Fisher, is the bar manager and his aunt, Cheryl Welch, is the vice commander.
“That’s the reason I even stepped in the role to keep it going, for my family,” said Fisher, and Air Force veteran.
Fisher and other veterans discussed the history of Post 450 and its plight on a segment of WQED’s “Horizons” with host Chris Moore that aired Jan. 10.
In the segment, Louis Lockhart, former vice commander and Post 450 historian, explained that African-Americans formed their own post during segregation because they weren’t permitted to join American Legion Post 4, the other Legion post in town. They named the post after Walter Robinson, a World War I veteran from .
Lockhart said the borough donated the old train station, after it was condemned, to serve as the post’s new home, and members came from all over to join.
“We built it up and it was one of the biggest posts in the Valley.”
The post in its heyday was a popular spot in the Valley, and played host to performances from well-known black musicians like Dizzy Gillepsie, Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway, Ray Charles and Fats Domino.
“It used to be a hot entertainment bed down here,” Fisher said, “all those big-time performers playing here at this Legion.”
Current members are working hard, pitching in anyway they can to help save the site, Fisher said.
“Everybody has their strengths,” Fisher said.
Some have pledged money, others are selling for Saturday or helping with grant writing, hoping to garner enough help to keep the place viable. The post is also looking to boost declining membership, which costs $27 per year for veterans and $22 for social members.
“We’re just hanging on,” said Welch, also a member of the recently revived ladies auxiliary. “We need the support of the community. It’s going to take a whole village to keep this place open.”
She said the auxiliary will be providing the food and cooking for Saturday. The menu includes roast beef, baked seasoned chicken, seasoned green beens, roasted red rosemary potatoes, garden salad, fruit cup, cake for dessert and beverages.
At the event, Fisher said, the Legion plans to honor Lockhart, the oldest member; Bettie Cole, a Sewickley author; and Stanley Rideout, a longtime member who established the popular “Come on Home” weekend, a reunion tradition the post has participated in for more than 43 years.
Walk-ins are welcome and no reservations are necessary. To donate, write a check payable to "American Legion Post 450" and mail it to 20 Chadwick Street, Sewickley, PA 15143.
If you go
When: Doors open at 5 p.m. The dinner will be served about 6 p.m. and the evening will include musical entertainment from the Red Velvet Jazz Band.
Where: American Legion Post 450, 20 Chadwick St.
Price: Tickets cost $25 per person and are available before Saturday at the American Legion, or by calling 412-741-9928. Tickets will also be sold at the door.