A South Carolina GAR Hall built by Black Civil War vets was sinking. Here's how it was saved.
The Island Packet July 4, 2022
BEAUFORT, S.C. (Tribune News Service) — Beaufort's 126-year-old Grand Army of the Republic Hall — a nationally recognized building and one of two GAR halls built by Black Civil War veterans still standing in the country — is no longer sinking, thanks to a $125,000 restoration ensuring the gathering spot with deep roots in the community will remain upright.
Over the years, the GAR Hall on Newcastle Street has served as a church, a daycare, and a venue for weddings and various community functions, but it began as a fraternal organization for Black veterans of the Civil War and its history remains a cornerstone.
But after more than a century, the building began to sink, said Ed Allen, which caused bowing in the walls and prompted the 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 GAR successor based in the hall. It worked on the restoration with Second Founding of America: Reconstruction Beaufort, a not-for-profit dedicated to uncovering Reconstruction Era stories it considers "the forgotten history of the heroic fight for freedom and equality for all Americans."
Water was eroding the foundation, which had dropped 6 inches, adds Billy Keyserling, Beaufort's former mayor who now heads the Second Founding of America organization.
Beaufort County Council contributed $115,000 in accommodations tax proceeds toward the project.
GAR, founded nationally in 1866, was once the nation's preeminent veterans' organization, formed at the close of the Civil War. Membership peaked in 1890, with more than 400,000 members.
Beaufort's GAR post, which started in 1888, was founded by Black veterans, many of them former slaves on Sea Island plantations who had been soldiers with the First South Carolina Volunteer Regiment that Maj. Gen. David Hunter organized at the Smith Plantation in the town of Port Royal in 1862.
The GAR Hall on Newcastle Street, constructed in 1896, was named after Hunter, who was famous for illegally emancipating slaves in South Carolina, Georgia and Florida following the capture of Fort Pulaski on the Savannah River on April 10, 1862. Hunter organized the "contrabands" from the Sea Islands who fought along the Georgia and east Florida coasts even before the regiment was officially mustered into federal service.
Allen's great great grandfather, George Washington, was a member of the First South Carolina Volunteer Regiment.
"Nationally," says Allen of the GAR halls, "there were white and black camps."
The GAR is a contributing structure to the city's 304-acre Historic District, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Dr. Elijah N. Washington, the commander of the Sons of the Union Veterans of the Civil War, says the Beaufort GAR Hall is one of two halls constructed by Black veterans in the country that remain standing — the other is in Sumner, Md. But Washington says the Beaufort GAR Hall is the only one that remains largely in its original form.
"They didn't have a place to meet," says Washington, explaining why local Civil War veterans got together to build it 126 years ago.
White veterans, Washington said, were meeting in another building.
The craftsmanship and materials that went into the construction, Allen says, were first-rate. True 2-by-4s and tongue-and-groove technique to fasten the wood joists were used. And it's evident, he adds, that boat building skills were brought to bear in the carpentry, which allowed the building to flex and sway with high winds inevitable in hurricane country.
It was a tricky job requiring a delicate repair because of the age, Allen and Keyserling said. The floor and substructure had to be rebuilt from underneath. New pillars were installed. Cables were used to straighten the bowed walls.
There's still work to do. How best to drain the water and a historic assessment of the property are the next steps.
"They're thinking," Allen says, "there might be a couple of graves here."
One day earlier this week, fans were whirring from high ceilings. The floor, made of wood, was glistening after being refinished.
These days, the hall serves as the headquarters for not only the Sons of Union Veterans, but also the Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War, Fred Washington Sr. Woman's Relief Corps and the "Afro-American Military Mini-Museum."
At the museum section, you can learn about prominent Beaufort County "trailblazers" such as Winfred Kent Alston, who was the Robert Smalls High School principal from 1937 to 1962. He built the first athletic field for night games in the Southeast, started the first "colored" Boy Scout troop in Beaufort, brought notable artists, educators and sports personalities to town including boxer Joe Louis, the Clara Ward Singers and Paul Robeson, the famous singer, actor, pro 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, says of the GAR posts. "A brotherhood."
The GAR restoration is one of four the group has in the works. The group is interested in churches, praise houses and businesses that showcase successes during Reconstruction from 1865-1877, when, locally, many Black residents were buying property, starting businesses, farming, becoming politically active and pursuing education.
Those success stories, Keyserling says, have been buried for too long, and can serve as an inspiration for a younger generation. He's now in discussions with the National Park Service about an agreement to add the GAR Hall as a network site to the Reconstruction Era National Park. Once that happens, he says, it can be added to the tours that rangers give of historic sites in the community.
"There's so many untold stories that are here," Allen adds, "people just don't know about."
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