Homage to Black Union Heroes

A Md. town reclaims the nation’s last standing veterans hall.

Chestertown, MD.—Thelma Wilson remembers the men in blue. They'd dwindled to just a handful by the 1920s, when she was a girl, but they still marched proudly down Queen Street, past their meeting hall, each Memorial Day: old soldiers, born in slavery, who had fought for their freedom at Petersburg, Cold Harbor, and Fort Gilmer.

But besides a few of the most elderly residents of this small town on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay, almost everyone here had forgotten Chestertown's black Civil War heroes until recently. The old veterans hall—a local African-American post of the nationwide organization called the Grand Army of the Republic—stands derelict and on the verge of collapse after years of neglect: a sad fate for a building created expressly to preserve the legacy of the Union cause.

Only when the building's longtime owner, a real estate developer, applied for permission to demolish it did local preservationists take an interest in the c. 1908 clapboard structure. When they contacted Civil War historians, the preservationists soon discovered that they were faced with saving a monument of far more than local importance. Experts believe that Chestertown's gar hall—named the Charles Sumner Post after the famous abolitionist U.S. senator—is the nation's only surviving black Civil War veterans lodge. And as such, it speaks eloquently of the men and women who built it: the 19th century's own "greatest generation."

"When I saw the building, I was stunned," says Barbara Gannon, a Penn State historian who is writing a book on the gar's African-American membership. "In some ways, its existence is a miracle."

Despite a recent boom of interest in the 200,000 African-Americans who fought in the Civil War, the veterans' experience has drawn little attention. "These were very ordinary people from an extraordinary generation, who had done extraordinary things," Gannon says. "Maybe they worked as laborers or teamsters after the war, but during those few years, they had freed their race. They built that building so that people would remember them—not just as individuals, but because people wanted to forget that the war was about slavery and that blacks had fought in it. And that battle for Civil War memory hasn't ended."

A century ago, there were more than 200 all-black gar posts across the country, along with thousands more white and integrated units. The organization was a powerful political force, a fundraiser for widows and orphans of the Union dead, and most of all, a keeper of the flame of memory. Each year on Decoration Day (or Memorial Day, as it is now known), Chestertown's veterans paraded to the cemetery behind wagons draped in evergreen branches and laden with flowers to be placed on soldiers' graves. It was a ritual enacted in many towns and cities.

Black gar groups were generally poorer than their white counterparts, Gannon says, and very few had their own meeting halls. As the last veterans died off in the 1920s and '30s, the few existing records and artifacts were lost or scattered. The Sumner Post was purchased by another black fraternal organization and used as a social hall—Ella Fitzgerald and Chick Webb, among others, performed there—before a developer bought it and left it to decay.

It might seem strange that the building met such a fate in Chestertown, a town of 4,000 people whose commitment to historic preservation borders on obsession. Just a block or two from the Sumner Post stand meticulously restored 18th-century mansions; each spring, many of their occupants parade in wigs and knee breeches to commemorate the little-known Chestertown Tea Party of 1774.

The town's 19th-century history, by contrast, seems a tangle of complexities that many would rather leave in the past. Although technically part of the Union, Maryland's Eastern Shore was slaveholding and largely pro-Confederate.

Chestertown's Civil War monuments list both rebels and Yankees, some with the same last names. Newspaper clippings from the late 1800s reveal that except for local African-Americans, no one else in town observed Decoration Day (despite the black veterans' magnanimous practice of decorating Confederate as well as Union graves).

Racial divisions have persisted. "When you talk about preservation to the African-American community, some people think it's all about big houses," says Joan Walker-Hunter, a black board member of Preservation, Inc., a long-established local nonprofit group. Similarly, Davy McCall, a white member of the board, says that many local whites used to view the former gar hall merely as "a club that somebody's maid's husband went to."

So when Preservation, Inc. bought the Sumner Post for $60,000 last September—and announced plans to restore the building as a shrine, museum, and community center—the move was hailed as a breakthrough for the town. "A lot of people are going to look at preservation in a different light now," Walker-Hunter says. She says the Sumner Post will eventually be handed over to a private foundation that will use it for performances and exhibits by local African-American artists as well as historical displays. (Full restoration is expected to cost at least another $200,000.)

On a recent Saturday morning, a group of people gathered to begin the cleanup of the old veterans hall. Alongside Walker-Hunter and her husband, a minister, were a local contractor, several professors from Washington College (a Chestertown institution supporting the restoration effort), a gospel singer, and even a couple of guys from a Confederate reenactors group. Kees de Mooy, a historian at the college who has coordinated the rescue effort, revved up a chainsaw.

Shrouded beneath vines and weed trees, the two-story structure looked less like a Civil War monument than some ancient Mayan ruin. But as de Mooy's chainsaw whirred, the simple lines of the old building gradually reemerged, rising above its sloping lawn with the quiet dignity of a New England village church. Inside, snow had drifted through holes in the roof and come to rest on the remnants of a coat rack and a broken-down piano. The cracked plaster walls still bore the hall's sole adornment: just beneath its ceiling, a proud stripe of Union blue.

"People in those days had so little, but somehow they built this place," Walker-Hunter says. "Maybe that will inspire us to continue what they started."

For more photos, stories, and tips, subscribe to the print edition of Preservation magazine.