Updated: Jan 7, 2022
Original Author: Leslie Gray Streeter)
CHICKAMAUGA — The stark gray metal sign with raised black letters indicates something important happened near Highway 341 in Chickamauga. It’s not the only historical marker in Walker County, 30 miles south of Chattanooga, Tennessee. There’s one down the road at the site of the Civil War Battle of Chickamauga, and another at the Gordon-Lee Mansion, a former plantation home that served as a field hospital for Union soldiers during that skirmish.
While the battlefield and the mansion have a grandeur, this particular marker heralds a single weathered building with ragged wooden planks and a blue tarp across the roof. Its importance is, at least on the surface, less obvious.
Behind those aged boards and worn windows is a history of a movement and of a people, some descended from the slaves who built the Gordon-Lee House, who established a place of pride and purpose and brotherhood older than the country itself.
The 97-year-old building was the local home of the Prince Hall Masons, one of the oldest fraternal organizations in the world, established by free Black men before the founding of the country. For nearly a century, the Chickamauga lodge was a gathering place for men invested in the support and momentum of their community. Closed because of dwindling membership and then damaged by storms, the building has been deemed unsafe. Now those who have been a part of its history are making sure its legacy survives. An estimated $250,000 is needed to replace the structure’s windows, siding and roof, which was damaged in a storm in 2020. And a group of locals, who see themselves as stewards of the lodge and its history, are working hard to ensure that the historical marker and the stories about Prince Hall Lodge No. 221 aren’t the only things that survive.
“This isn’t a big beautiful antebellum home. It might look like a barn,” said Beverly Foster, whose connections to the site go back to childhood when she played in the yard while her father met with his Masonic brothers inside. Her husband Eddie Foster became the Grand Master of the lodge, and she helped start an effort to restore the building as part of the Walker County African American Historical and Alumni Association.
“This lodge has a bigger legacy than we realize,” she said.
Freemasonry for freedmen
To understand how Prince Hall Lodge No. 221 became so vital to Chickamauga’s Black citizens, one must first understand the history of Prince Hall Masonry. A predominately African American fraternal organization, its membership has included notables such as the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, Major League Baseball Hall of Famer Ernie Banks, legendary musicians William “Count” Basie and Nat King Cole and late U.S. Congressmen Elijah Cummings and John Lewis.
It predates historically Black colleges and Greek organizations, and even the founding of the country, said Dave Gillarm Jr., grand historian for the state chapter. “Look back at history, when important things were happening in the African American community, there were Masons there.”
That history, like that of African descendants in this country, is one of rejection and resilience, of turning racist exclusion from long-established institutions into deeply entrenched, culturally resonate traditions of their own. Prince Hall, an abolitionist and native of Barbados who settled in Boston as a leatherworker, was drawn to the values of liberty and community exemplified by the Masons, a secret, all-male society established in Britain in the 17th century.
But as a Black man, Hall was denied acceptance into the local, all-white Mason lodge
Undeterred, in 1775 he and 14 other freedmen joined Boston’s Grand Lodge of Ireland, but had limited powers. Nearly 10 years later, Hall was granted a charter from the Grand Lodge of England to form what would eventually be known as African Lodge No. 1.
Now numbering 300,000 members across 5,000 lodges worldwide, the Prince Hall Masons, which adopted the founder’s name after his death, became more than a copy of traditional masonry. It evolved its own mythologies and rituals, some tied to members’ African roots.
Members are integral to their communities and to milestones in American history as business owners, doctors, academics, activists, farmers, educators, politicians and members of the armed forces “helping to lead African Americans into newfound freedom and to become productive in society,” Gillarm said.
“The importance of these places is beyond,” said Corey Shackleford, grand master of the Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Georgia. “They should be in the history books, it’s so enmeshed in our lives. If you look at the Underground Railroad, look at the civil rights movement: Who looked out for all kinds of people? Prince Hall Masons. Stop and listen to how deep it runs. Prince Hall Masons were the backbone of the community,”
Prince Hall in Georgia
Chickamauga Prince Hall Lodge No. 221 of the Free and Accepted Masons of Georgia was not the oldest lodge in Georgia or the most influential. The first one was built in Savannah in 1866. The Prince Hall Grand Lodge on Auburn Avenue in Atlanta was the first home of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. But the lodge in Chickamauga was an integral part of the District Hill community.
Built in 1924, its roots date back to the first charter in 1915, led by C.D. Haslerig, who donated the three-quarter-acre plot of land and whose family operated the only Black-owned dairy farm in the area. The Haslerig home, across the road, burned down “mysteriously” in 1924, Foster said, along with the original charter for the lodge. A second charter was issued two years later.
Such tragedies, mysterious or not, didn’t stop the work going on inside the building or in the community. At times in its history, the lodge sheltered homeless people, raised money for the local segregated school, whose teachers were paid a salary but provided with little, if any, supplies, Foster said. They also cared for widows and orphans.
Jacqueline McGintis, who has lived behind the lodge most of her life, often wondered what was happening inside — the rituals and concerns known only to the sworn brothers. Because Masonry is a secret organization, the goings-on are kept firmly within that membership.
“My father wouldn’t even let us come into the building,” Foster said. “There was a secret handshake. We would try to watch for it, and they had done it before you realized it.”
For years the lodge was a hub of activity, but as older members died and fewer new members joined, participation declined, perhaps because other organizations and pastimes became available, Foster said.
“They used to have barbecues in the yard. Now, it’s almost desolate.” said McGintis. “You could see the cars and the lights. But over the years, it got less and less.”
Lodge No. 221 hosted meetings until 2018, when the once-vibrant membership fell below the four required to stay independent. The remaining members were absorbed into another lodge.
“Brothers started dying out,” said longtime member David Myers, district deputy of the area. “There were just three of us.”
Saving a community’s legacy
Clemmie Adams Black, 94, spent three decades meeting in the lodge as a member of the Order of the Eastern Stars, the Masons’ sister organization. Stepping inside for the first time in decades on a hot, muggy day in July, there was both wonder and hurt in her voice.
“This place was one of the things that brought us through,” she said. “Looking at it now, it looks like a failure. It would be like a blessing, something to look forward to, if all of a sudden, something happened here.”
Masons only permit men into its membership, but women can join the Eastern Stars if a male relative belongs to the organization. Adams Black joined in 1951 at the age of 21 and was active for more than 30 years.
“Everybody looked up to (the Masons),” she said. “There were people who would help you accomplish things you couldn’t do on your own. Being here in the lodge, you had that closeness.”
She perused remnants of the lodge’s former life — an old piano, piles of boxes, an open refrigerator, the ancient wood stove that once heated the place.
“Walking around here brings back so many memories,” she said and then paused. “It’s painful.”
So far, the lodge has been the recipient of a few federal grants, including one that helped firm up the foundation. There have also been fundraisers, including one this fall on the lodge’s lawn. But there’s more work to do, Shackleford said.
The community’s effort was successful in securing the historical marker in 2010, which Foster said helped get others to recognize the worth of the lodge. Now the Prince Hall Grand Lodge in Riverdale, the Masons’ central headquarters for the state, is leading the effort to save the Chickamauga lodge.
“This was the centerpiece of that community,” said Corey Shackleford.
Signs indicate the timing could be good for fostering interest in the rescue effort. The Prince Hall Grand Lodge in Atlanta, the first home of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, recently received a $1.5 million grant to renovate its structure on Auburn Avenue.
“Oftentimes, resources are lost and you never know what was there,” said Melissa Jest, coordinator of African American projects for the Georgia Historical Preservation Division. She is hopeful the building will return to what it once was.
“(People) want to touch the place and be in spaces where history happened, where our ancestors toiled and cried. These places, like the lodge, provide that experience,” she said. “If you’re looking for nice and pretty, you’ll go to Disney World.”
Efforts to rehabilitate this once vibrant place is not only the business of the Prince Hall Masons but of the greater community, as part of a plan to attract more history and heritage tourism to Chickamauga — what John Culpepper, chairperson of the Walker County Historic Preservation Commision, called a former “textile town that was dying on the vine.”
“We want to really make (the lodge) a picturesque showplace,” he said. “If this generation doesn’t get it done, it won’t get done. I wish that house could talk. It’s got a story. It either has to be now or we’re gonna lose it.”
Black history is American history
The story of the Chickamauga lodge is American history, but it’s also, specifically Black history. Many of the people interviewed acknowledged that the subject can be considered divisive, but painful things like discimination and slavery are inextricable. For instance, Eddie Foster’s great-great grandfather was a body servant to Confederate Army Captain Kinchen Rambo Foster, who fought in the Battle of Chickamauga.
“The history of both families loom large here. And it’s important to tell all of it,” Beverly Foster said. “Some ugly things did happen, but if we dwell on that we can’t move forward. Once we came out of slavery, most of us came out with nothing. We didn’t have a place to go, most of us. White people told the history from their point of view. Now we’re telling it from ours. This is not just important to us, but to the state of Georgia.”
Historian Jest agreed.
“It’s a wonderful example of the agency of African Americans when our humanity was in question,” she said after touring the Chickamauga lodge. “It was wonderful to see and touch and be within a space built by Black people who wanted to attest to their humanity and independence. I was moved. I was honored. We share this story no matter what part of Georgia we are in. Most likely our ancestors came over on the same boat, through the same portal.”
The ultimate goal is not only to make Lodge No. 221 a tourism attraction, but to one day fill its membership rolls to the point where it’s an active lodge again. “I wish we could get it going again,” Myers said. “I have to drive 60 miles. Being here at home is more convenient.”
The state leadership is hopeful about the future of the organization, which has about 13,000 Prince Hall Masons and Eastern Stars, who range in age from “18 till the Lord calls you home,” Gillarm said, although the bulk are Baby Boomers. While the youngest ones aren’t “knocking down our doors, they do come to us when they get older. We are growing. They want to be a part of where we are going.”
Gillarm hopes younger people will notice similarities between modern movements like Black Lives Matters and voting rights organizations with the values of Prince Hall Masons.
“To be a Mason in Georgia you must be a registered voter. It’s been that way since the ‘50s,” he said. “We want a person who wants to be part of the Black community.”
Foster believes that can happen. Many times, standing in front of the lodge, she’s been stopped by young people, “white and Black ones,” she said, “who slow down and say ‘What is this place? Who do we call about this? Do you ever have it open?’”
When she tells them, they get it. And she’s sure other people will, too, if the place is there to discover.
“It gives them a sense of pride and place,” Foster said. “It looks like it’s falling over. It looks weird, but it’s solid.”