A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE
WILLIAM WEECH AMERICAN LEGION
American Legion Post 168 is named for William Weech who died on 26 September 1918 when the USCGC Tampa was torpedoed by a German U-Boat just off the coast of Wales. The ship went down quickly taking all 131 people aboard with it. William Weech, a native of Key West, had just finished his 18th mission.
The Post received a Temporary Charter from the American Legion on 27 June 1946; but, that was not the beginning of the story. When the warriors of World War I returned home to Key West they found the black community had paid a high price for a relatively small number of people. At least 41 black Key Westers had died in the war. The returning veterans wanted to create a support structure to help themselves and to support the community. The American Legion was in its infancy and the veterans did not know it existed. So they formed an organization and called it “The Colored Veterans of World War I”. In that capacity they did all the same things as the American Legion. They helped other veterans, placed flowers on graves, worked with families, and attended events memorializing veterans and similar activities. It was not until the Fall of 1919 that the men learned some of their white comrades had established the “Arthur Sawyer” American Legion Post 28 on Stock Island. This knowledge did not change the structure of the Colored Veterans of World War I. They worked with Post 28 and other veteran groups but did so as an individual entity. They continued in this capacity until after World War II.
As soldiers, sailors, coast guardsmen and marines returned to Key West from World War II they found a need to band together and support each other in their new lives. They joined with The Colored Veterans of World War I but that title no longer represented the group. The veterans decided the American Legion would be a good fit for them. It would take four applications before a Charter was granted but these were not the type of individuals who would quit. Following the issuance of a Charter, Earl McGee became the first Commander of the Post. All of the veterans who formed American Legion Post 168 were black so the Post was assigned to the 11th District under the Department of Florida. The American Legion, at least in the Deep South, was segregated at this time and District 11 was comprised solely of black Posts.
Many of the veterans returned home to jobs working as civilian employees of the Navy which had a huge presence in Key West at the time. These veterans had an incredible sense of community and wanted to create something that would support families and community as well a support group for themselves. Over a two year period following the end of World War II the group would see its membership triple. Post 168 partnered with the black VFW Post 6021. These were people who shared common visions and values. They would work together to build something special. The two
Posts initially rented space at the corner of Thomas Street and Angela Street to hold their meetings. It soon became clear that they needed to raise money if they were going to ever own their own meeting hall. So the two Posts rented a building located at 711 Whitehead Street known as “Old Dixie Hall” and began running it like a night club. They would soon be able to start putting some money away.
On or about February 9, 1951 the two Posts purchased land from the Key West Postmaster, Fred Dion, and his wife. There are conflicting accounts regarding the price of the property. A warranty deed would not be filed for another two years but the veterans would not wait. They immediately began building the structure which would become their headquarters. Architect and County Mayor C.B. Harvey drafted the blue prints and donated them to the Posts. The membership of the two Posts included carpenters, electricians, brick masons, plumbers and painters. They worked for the Navy during the day and worked on the new building each night. Materials for the construction were donated by politicians and businesses but as the Post neared completion the veterans ran out of money. In an extraordinary gesture for the time the all-white American Legion Post 28 loaned the Posts $2,000 so they could complete their project. The work was completed on December 11, 1952.
Two women from American Legion Post 28 came to Post 168 in order to assist in setting up the Women’s Auxiliary. Mrs. Adrenna Sands and Mrs. Piodela were immeasurably helpful in creating the structure, establishing the officer positions, assigning duties and assisting with the election of the first officers. Mrs. Ethel Whithead was the first President and would represent the Post at the next American Legion convention. Mrs. Maggie Evans was the first Treasurer and Mrs. Hortense Curry Carey was the first Secretary.
The foregoing is important because it must not be forgotten the time was the early 1950’s and, as noted earlier, segregation was alive and well in the Deep South. As a member of District 11 the Post was not allowed to send representatives to the white convention. Rather, the Posts of District 11 held their own convention. That convention would be held prior to the white convention so a single member of District 11 could be chosen to appear at the white convention and report on the activities of the district. The fact that the Arthur Sawyer Post 28 went out of its way to help Post 168 during the early years demonstrates that the ties between veterans transcends other cultural barriers. The generosity of Post 28 was greatly appreciated and the veterans of Post 168 moved forward with their dreams.
Segregation continued until 1965 when the National Commander declared segregation to be in violation of the National Constitution and Bylaws and ordered it to end. The Department of Florida was reluctant to obey the orders of the National Commander but the order contained a threat to revoke any Charter unless Posts were integrated. Faced with the prospect of being ejected from the American Legion, the Department of Florida capitulated. Segregated Posts ended in 1965 and Post 168 became a part of the District plan which existed at the time.
The building which had been raised by the members of American Legion Post 168 and VFW Post 6021 stands at 803 Emma Street in what is now known as “Bahama Village”. It quickly became the hub of everything that happened in the black community. Soon the building became known as the “Black Town Hall”. As one enters the building from Emma Street there is a bar to the right. There is a room further to the right which at one time was a mini bar but now is a large kitchen. To the left of the entrance and past the bar is an open area which could be a dance floor, a meeting space or seating area for performances. At the end of this room is a large stage with dressing rooms on each end. This stage became a part of the “Chitlin’ Circuit” and hosted James Brown, B.B. King, Otis Redding and Etta James just to name a few. There is also a mezzanine that circles the first floor. It looks down on the stage and open area and allows for people to sit at tables and enjoy whatever is happening. The all black Fredrick Douglass school held their dances at Post 168 and over 10,000 black military personnel, along with their families, visited during the 1950’s and 1960’s. The Post sent many boys and girls to “Boys State” and “Girls State” in Tallahassee. In short the Post became part of the fabric of the community. People held their wedding receptions there as did their children. It was viable and desirable to host family and community functions at 803 Emma Street.
In1962 the Post hosted the largest political rally in the history of Key West. Hilario. “Charlie” Ramos was challenging Bernie C. Papy Sr. who had held the State representative seat for 28 years. The Post filled to capacity as both black and white residents came together in support of Charlie Ramos. In a hotly contested race Charlie Ramos would win the seat by a mere 28 votes. The rally, which helped secure black votes, drove Charlie over the top.
In 1963 a far more important meeting would take place at 803 Emma Street. The members of the Post called the meeting and elected officials from the Monroe County Schools and the City of Key West attended. It was time to end segregation in the public school system. This was the start of a movement that would culminate in February of 1965 when the School Board ordered the integration of all public schools in the county. In September 1965 the all black Fredrick Douglass School, located near Post 168 in Bahama Village, would close and all students would start attending public schools based upon their place of residence. Post 168 continued to be a center of activity throughout the 1960’s. Families that grew up around the Post remember events such as Christmas parties. The children would receive two “brown bags” one from the Navy and one from the Post. In the bags were fruit and candy. The children each received two toys one from the Navy and one from the Post. No one was left out of these special Christmas galas.
For whatever reasons, the men and women who served in the Vietnam era didn’t seem to share the need for camaraderie which existed in the post-World Wars I and II veterans. Although the Post remained a busy place the actual membership began to drop. At some point VFW Post 6021 ceased to exist and the property at 803 Emma Street continued to be managed by the William Weech American Legion Post 168.
In 1982, Glenwood Lopez and four other members, submitted a plan to operate the Legion building as a Nightclub. The House Committee approved the plan and a fifteen year lease to the five members, doing business as “Islandnites, Inc.,” who took it upon themselves to invest $100,000 of their own money into making renovations and improvements to the property. The club was very popular in the 1980, however, in the decade that followed the Legion was rarely open and the membership dropped significantly. It soon became necessary for the Post to limit the “Mini-bar” hours of operation and rent the building out for parties. By this point there wasn’t enough money coming in to do anything other than pay the utilities and perform minor maintenance. Therefore the building began to fall into a state of disrepair.
On May 15, 2011 Post 168 received a SAL Charter. The following year, on May 30, 2012 the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places. In between those dates an inspector from the City would notice a piece of concrete which had fallen from the building onto the sidewalk. The city would inspect the building, declare it unsafe and order it closed. Two groups of citizens began to squabble over what could and should be done with the building. Local preservation architect, Bert Bender, proposed an approach that would stabilize the structure of the building but not provide for full renovation. This was the first step in saving the building from the wrecking ball. Having been named an “historic place” also helped to save the building.
The Bahama Village Redevelopment Advisory Committee (BVRAC) recommended, and the City Commissioners approved, $210,000 from city Tax Incremental Funding (TIF) from Bahama Village homeowners be given to the Post to help renovate the building. A $50,000 grant from the state was obtained at the same time. That money was sufficient to carry out the re-stabilization plan. In December, 2016 the Post received a Grant from the State of Florida in the amount of $154,000 but it carried with it the requirement that some matching funds be added. The City of Key West came through with $131,000 from the TIF to be used as matching funds. This money will be sufficient to renovate the building to the point where it will be able to be occupied, but it will not be enough to bring the building to the state of its past glory (for instance, air conditioning is not currently funded the the planned repairs). Fundraising is an important part of our current operations.
When the Post opened the building at 803 Emma Street, Phillip Sears was one of the early Commanders. He clearly had a vision of the community and what role he wanted the American Legion Post to play in it. Today, our current Commander, Glenwood Lopez, our recent Commander, Bernice Hill, hold that same vision. Supported by a now integrated membership the Post is determined to carry out that vision. The community needs the team of local Veterans of Key West and the Florida Keys to be engaged in projects that make a positive difference. The vision of the WIlliam Weech American Legion Post 168 is to once again be part of the fabric that makes up our island family.
For more information pertaining to the William Weech American Legion Post 168, please contact Commander Glenwood Lopez, (770) 401-7932, or Adjutant Dr. Nancy A. Moulton, PhD, (703) 626-0600.
Version dated 12Dec2018