A “founder” of The American Legion is considered to be someone with proven attendance at one of the two organizing 1919 caucuses – Paris in March, or St. Louis in May. The attendee lists are not complete, so a full lineup of founders is impossible. But many are known.
Gurnett Ferguson is on the St. Louis Caucus list, a delegate from West Virginia. He was born in Fayette County on Oct. 17, 1888. His father was a coal miner. Ferguson – or “Cap,” as he was known – grew up just west of Charleston, W.Va., a city he would ultimately devote decades of his life to. Before passing away in 2023, his granddaughter Maria Sisco collaborated with Stan Bumgardner on a web article on his life and legacy. After graduating from high school and normal school in 1912, he taught and entered the world of real estate.
Ferguson’s full military record was a victim of the 1973 St. Louis records fire, but in 1917 he trained for the Army at Fort Des Moines, Iowa, and was named a company captain in the 365th Infantry, part of the all-Black 92nd Division. The 365th received the Croix de Guerre for its actions in the Vosges Mountains late in the war.
On May 13, 1919, nearly 1,100 soldiers gathered in St. Louis for the first American Legion organizational caucus held in the United States. Delegates from each state/department approved drafts of the preamble and constitution, elected ceremonial officers, adopted “The American Legion” as a name and made plans for the first national convention, to be held in Minneapolis that November. I.K. Stevenson published a booklet in 1980, “The Recording of the Individual Lives of Those Who Acted as Founders of The American Legion,” in which he recounts his conversations with many of the still-living founders. He said of Ferguson, then 91, “Since attending (the) caucus, he has been one of our most enthusiastic Boosters, and his work with his local Legion posts has been wonderful.” In 1922, he spearheaded the charter of Post 57 in Charleston – still in operation – the area’s first Black post.
That same year, the Ferguson Hotel opened, part of a complex of stores and business centers – The Block – that took up an entire city block in a poor area and cost nearly $3.4 million in 2019 numbers to build. A revolutionary space in a segregated city, it spurred additional investment in the area. Ferguson related to Stevenson his pride at convincing his local bank to take a chance on his dream; as the author recounted, “What pleased (him) more than the confidence of the bankers was what when the loan came due, he was able to repay it. This established his credit standing, and any time another idea developed he always had the bank behind him.”
As the decades passed, Ferguson served on Republican Party executive committees throughout West Virginia, and continued to drive developments in housing and recreational facilities. As a Legion founder, he was listed as a distinguished guest at the 1981 national convention in Hawaii. He died on Dec. 26, 1982, in St. Louis and is buried in West Virginia. Stevenson had characterized him well as “… a man of action. His entire life has been ‘doing things.’”