Keeping Post 215 thriving for his heroes
By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on November 5, 2010 1:46 PM
News-Argus/MICHAEL K. DAKOTA
William Johnson, the man who kept the once all-black American Legion Post 215 alive when its membership began dying out, is seen inside the local Disabled American Veterans headquarters.
A younger William Johnson was often asked about a house in Goldsboro -- a place where "many a man met a good wife," where dancing was done in shifts because the crowds were simply too big for everybody to be inside at the same time.
"People used to say, 'You from North Carolina? You know about 215 on Pine?'" he said. "I had no idea what they were talking about."
Back then, the young airman had no way of knowing that one day, American Legion Post 215 -- referred to as "215 on Pine" because from 1948 to the mid-1990s, its headquarters was located at 221 W. Pine St. -- would be a significant part of his life, that without him, the historically all-black Post was going to die.
Johnson made Wayne County his permanent home after retiring from the Air Force -- the technical sergeant spent more than 23 years in the service after joining in 1954 with the intention of simply staying in long enough to use the GI Bill to pay for a college education.
"While I was stationed at Seymour Johnson in 1961, I bought a house here ... and when I had to go I rented it out," he said. "That was the best decision I ever made."
And in 1980, he finally made his way to that old house on Pine he had heard so much about from Vietnam to Hawaii.
"But by the time I joined, the members were getting old," Johnson said. "They were kind of dying out."
The Post's glory days had long since passed -- the dancing replaced with storytelling, the all-night parties with quick meetings.
And since his youth made him the most able, the organization's newest member quickly became adjutant, treasurer and, finally, commander.
"Somebody had to call the meetings and make sure the paperwork got done," Johnson said. "And the other guys, they had just gotten so old. Many of them were in wheelchairs and so forth."
By 1990, the Post's membership had dwindled down to five men, but even then, Johnson fought to keep 215 alive -- ensuring its dues were always paid, pleading with state and national officers to allow its legacy to continue.
And thanks to him, its charter was never pulled -- even when he was the only active member, even after that house on Pine was demolished and meetings were moved to the Disabled American Veterans headquarters on Patrick Street.
"For a while, it looked like it was gonna fade off and drop out of sight," Johnson said. "Let's just say it didn't quite happen that way."
Johnson believes the spirit of the old "215 on Pine" lives on through those 55 local veterans who now make up the county's once all-black American Legion.
"We got young people involved," he said. "And we're still growing."
So he takes pride in knowing that although he was not among those World War II-era service members who created the legacy of the Post he has grown to love, he can still say he honored his heroes by keeping alive an organization they held so dear to their hearts.
"I'm very proud and thankful," Johnson said. "I feel good about it. I really do. I feel like I really contributed a great deal to 215."