0401VETSaudJohnny Varner Jr., commander of American Legion Eugene Brown Post 521, talks about the group’s merger with American Legion Post 534 in Buford.
Two area American Legion posts with pasts linked to the segregation era plan to steer a new course in the future.
Eugene Brown Post 521 in Gainesville is merging with Post 534 in Buford, awaiting further direction from the State Department of Georgia, American Legion.
Combining the two posts should "bring more leadership and continuity to one entity," said Post 521’s commander, Johnny Varner Jr.
"We’re both in similar situations. Our building is condemned, at this point, so we don’t have a post home. Buford has bought (the Buford post’s) property and they don’t have a (permanent) home," Varner said.
Gainesville’s post was founded in 1948, during an era when cities and towns had separate American Legion posts based on race. The post thrived for decades, its name etched into the stone base that holds the eternal flame in downtown Gainesville’s Roosevelt Square.
But then, as older members died, the post didn’t have the younger members to keep the organization strong. Since the mid-1990s, the post’s building on 1372 Harrison Drive has been condemned, said Stephanie Watkins, the post’s first female and former commander, in an interview last year.
The group rechartered in 2006 and has seen a rejuvenation, receiving honors for exceeding quota requirements for membership, said Varner, a U.S. Army retiree who served in the Iraq War.
The post, which meets at Harrison Square Apartments, has grown from 14 members to 82 as reported during the American Legion’s 2009 Spring Conference at Lake Lanier Islands.
Other small American Legion posts haven’t been as fortunate in growing. Post 534 decided to merge so it can maintain its charter, Varner said.
Leon Johnson, adjutant with the Buford post, said the city wanted post land for a new road. The two parties were able to agree on a land swap, "but then we thought about the best way of us more or less trying to survive."
"(The city) was going to put a building on the (property), but it wasn’t big enough for us, so we decided ... that it would be better to merge (with Post 521)," he said.
In the meantime, Post 534 is meeting at the home of American Legion Post 127, also in Buford.
"They’ve been very nice, just like brothers," Johnson said.
Varner said "the cash assets that come from the merger of both posts will help us (move) to a new facility and implement some of our programs, such as American Legion baseball."
The Gainesville post also has youth programs, such as sponsorship of Boy Scout Troop 15, and an auxiliary comprising wives of members.
"As we move forward with the consolidation, we’ll implement Sons of the American Legion, which is open to descendants of American Legionaires," Varner said.
The new post home could be in South Hall, he added.
"We’re looking at possible donations, even though we’ll be bringing some assets to the table," Varner said. "Being that we’re a nonprofit, we could use all the help we can get."
Douglas Cobb, vice commander of the Post 521 and a Vietnam War veteran, said he believes the merger "is a helluva good idea."
"It will strengthen us in numbers, and we’ll have a better leadership to come out of it," he said. "We’re going to choose new leaders from each post."
The new post also will have a new number. The old 500 series was assigned to segregated posts.
"We’re trying to get members from everywhere, all walks of life, different nationalities," Cobb said. "It doesn’t matter your color, as long as you’re military. In the Legion, we’re all one."
Varner said the new number will show "we’re all Americans together."
Richard R. Smith, a World War II veteran and chairman of Post 521’s nominating committee, said he believes the union can succeed.
"If we all work together, we’ll grow up together," said.