Building houses legacy of black veterans


CHESTERTOWN - Karen Somerville admits it takes a little imagination to see past the sagging roof, the vine-covered walls and the sizable mulberry tree that might be the only thing propping up the 93-year-old building.

But if you look closely, she says, you might see the ghosts of the black Civil War veterans who built the Grand Army of the Republic lodge hall that served as a focal point for African-Americans in rural Kent County for more than 40 years.

Look again, and Somerville, a local singer and preservationist, hopes one day you'll see the neglected Centennial Lodge, in Chestertown's oldest African-American neighborhood, become a cultural center once more.

More than 70 years after the last of the county's 400 black Civil War veterans died, Somerville and other area preservationists are trying to save the dilapidated building that housed the GAR lodge and, later, the Centennial Lodge Beneficial Association founded by the veterans' descendants.

The two-story lodge was built in 1908 by members of the Charles Sumner Post - named for an abolitionist senator - which was formed in 1882, one of 22 African-American GAR posts in Maryland. The lodge is believed to be the last GAR building standing in Maryland.

With help from the Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College, researchers and volunteers are poring over wills and other public documents, gathering memorabilia and looking for grants that will enable them to purchase and restore the building, which has been vacant for almost 20 years.

Some hope it will become a permanent home for the 6-year-old African-American Heritage Council of Kent County, a museum to house a growing collection of historical documents, photographs and tintypes that form the blurry outline of black history in Maryland's least-populous county.

"Obviously, African-American history is very fragmented," says Somerville, 43, a Kent native who founded the heritage group to help piece together the history of this close-knit community in which many have only a dim idea of their genealogical roots.

By 1908, the Kent County veterans were incorporated as the Charles Sumner Beneficial Society and an auxiliary, the Charles Sumner Women's Relief Corps. They built the lodge, which they and their families operated until the last veteran died in 1928.

Family members then formed the Centennial Lodge Beneficial Association of Kent County, an organization that remained active until 1950. In 1978, the building was sold to the first of several investors, and it has steadily deteriorated.

"It's quite rare to find one of these buildings put up after the Civil War," says Harry Bradshaw Matthews, who heads the United States Colored Troops Institute at Hartwick College in Oneonta, N.Y. "They're hard to find, and their number is dwindling. Since cost was a factor, many just weren't well-built and didn't last."

No one knows how many direct descendants of the original two dozen veterans live in Kent, but in a county where the number of inhabitants has changed little during the past 100 years, it is likely that many remain.

"The really exciting thing about this project is that when you look around the county, you see so many of the last names of the original GAR members," says Kees de Mooy, program director of the Center for the Study of the American Experience.

The heritage council, lacking tax-exempt status that would allow the heritage council to handle grant money directly, has joined forces with Preservation Inc., a Chestertown organization that buys, restores and sells historic houses in the Colonial-era town.

If grant money is available - the Smithsonian Institution, the Maryland Museum of African-American History and Culture, and the Maryland Historical Society, among others, have expressed interest in the project - Preservation Inc. would act as a partner with the African-American Heritage Council and the newly formed Friends of Sumner Post to buy and restore the lodge.

"African-American history has pretty much been ignored in Kent County. We don't have another building in the county built by African-Americans," says Joan Walker Hunter, who grew up in historically black Butlertown and is active in trying to save the lodge. "One thing we're thinking about is some sort of multipurpose building, but that's just one of the possibilities. I think it's something that will energize the African-American community if we can make it happen."

Even after years of neglect, the building appears to be structurally sound, organizers say. If renovation proves impossible, they hope to salvage ornate molding and other items from the interior and build anew.

Somerville, a gospel and jazz singer who produces her own music CDs, worked for years putting together a display of family photographs. She coaxed them from residents in historically black neighborhoods such as Worton Point, the isolated community where she lives on a 12-acre parcel that she thinks was given to her grandfather's grandmother, Sara Freeman, when the woman was freed from slavery after the Civil War.

Somerville says her collection, now stored in a 110-year-old, one-room Worton Point schoolhouse where generations of black children were educated, could serve as the cornerstone for a more extensive collection to be displayed in a renovated or rebuilt building, one that would be far more accessible in the county seat of Chestertown.

"People here certainly realize the value of family and they held dearly to these old photographs, but not many of them realized they had value or would be of wider interest," Somerville says. "But it's that simple family life that was going on in these little backwoods towns that deserves to be told."

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