BEAUFORT, SC (Tribune News Service) – The 126-year-old Grand Army of the Republic Hall in Beaufort – a nationally recognized building and one of two GAR halls built by Black Civil War veterans still standing in the country – no longer sinks, thanks to a $125,000 restoration ensuring the gathering place with deep roots in the community will remain standing.
Over the years, GAR Hall on Newcastle Street has served as a church, day care center and venue for weddings and various community functions, but it began as a fraternal organization for black Civil War veterans and its history remains a cornerstone.
But after more than a century, the building began to sink, Ed Allen said, causing the walls to warp and prompting restoration. “It was very noticeable,” Allen said.
Allen, the former Beaufort County coroner, is a member of the Sons of the Union Veterans of the Civil War, a successor to the GAR based in the ward. He has worked on restoration with Second Founding of America: Reconstruction Beaufort, a nonprofit dedicated to uncovering the stories of the Reconstruction era that it considers “the forgotten history of the heroic struggle for freedom and equality for all Americans”.
The water was eroding the foundation, which had fallen 6 inches, adds Billy Keyserling, the former mayor of Beaufort who now leads the organization Second Founding of America.
Beaufort County Council donated $115,000 in lodging tax revenue for the project.
GAR, founded nationally in 1866, was once the nation’s leading veterans organization, formed at the end of the Civil War. Membership peaked in 1890, with over 400,000 members.
The Beaufort GAR post, which began in 1888, was founded by black veterans, many of whom were former Sea Island plantation slaves who had been soldiers of the First South Carolina Volunteer Regiment that Major General David Hunter organized at the Smith Plantation in the city. of Port Royal in 1862.
The GAR Hall on Newcastle Street, built in 1896, was named after Hunter, who was famous for illegally emancipating slaves in South Carolina, Georgia and Florida after the capture of Fort Pulaski on the Savannah River on the 10th April 1862. Hunter organized the “Smugglers” of the Sea Islands which fought along the coasts of Georgia and eastern Florida even before the regiment officially entered Federal service.
Allen’s great-great-grandfather, George Washington, was a member of the First South Carolina Volunteer Regiment.
“Nationally,” says Allen of GAR Halls, “there were white and black camps.”
The GAR is a contributory structure to the city’s 304-acre Historic District, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Dr. Elijah N. Washington, the commanding officer of the Sons of the Union Veterans of the Civil War, says Beaufort GAR Hall is one of two halls built by black veterans in the country that remain standing – the other is at Sumner, Md. But Washington says the Beaufort GAR Hall is the only one that remains largely in its original form.
“They had no place to meet,” Washington says, explaining why local Civil War veterans came together to build it 126 years ago.
White veterans, Washington said, were meeting in another building.
The craftsmanship and materials used in the construction, Allen says, were top notch. Real 2 by 4s and a tongue and groove technique to attach the wood joists were used. And it’s obvious, he adds, that boat building skills were put to good use in the carpentry, which allowed the building to flex and sway with the high winds that are inevitable in hurricane country.
It was delicate work requiring delicate repair due to age, Allen and Keyserling said. The floor and the substructure had to be rebuilt from below. New pillars have been installed. Cables were used to straighten the vaulted walls.
There is still work to do. The best way to drain the water and a historical appraisal of the property are the next steps.
“They think,” Allen said, “there might be some graves here.”
A day earlier this week, fans hummed under high ceilings. The wooden floor shone after being refinished.
Today, the hall serves as headquarters not only for the Sons of Union Veterans, but also for the Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War, the Fred Washington Sr. Woman’s Relief Corps, and the Afro-American Military Mini-Museum.
In the museum section, you can learn about prominent Beaufort County “pioneers,” such as Winfred Kent Alston, who was the principal of Robert Smalls High School from 1937 to 1962. He built the first field troop for night games in the Southeast, began the first A ‘colored’ scout troop in Beaufort brought notable artists, educators and sports personalities to town, including boxer Joe Louis, the Clara Wards Singers and Paul Robeson, the famous singer, actor, professional football player and activist. And he even drove the school bus.
“They were basically a fraternal organization, just like the VFW,” Keyserling of the Second Founding of America said of the GAR positions. “A brotherhood.”
The restoration of the GAR is one of four that the group has in the works. The group focuses on churches, houses of worship and businesses that showcase the successes of reconstruction from 1865 to 1877, when locally many black residents purchased property, started businesses, farmed, became politically active and pursued their studies.
These successes, says Keyserling, have been buried for too long and can serve as an inspiration to a younger generation. He is now in talks with the National Park Service about a deal to add GAR Hall as a network site at Reconstruction Era National Park. Once that happens, he says, it can be added to the tours rangers give to historic sites in the community.
“There are so many untold stories here,” Allen adds, “people just don’t know about it.”
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