The United Sons and Daughters of Charity Lodge Hall in Bolivar, Hardeman County, is one of the oldest African American lodge buildings in West Tennessee. Listed in the National Register of Historic Buildings, its unassuming architecture reflects the types of community buildings erected by African Americans during the era of Jim Crow segregation.
In 1873, a group of African American freedmen in Bolivar established the United Sons and Daughters of Charity as a local self-help and benevolent organization to assist African Americans at the end of the Freedmen’s Bureau and Reconstruction in Hardeman County. Bolivar had been a center of Freedmen’s Bureau activity, especially after September 1868 when it became the headquarters for a bureau sub-district that served freed people in Carroll, Hardeman, McNairy, Hardin, Decatur, Henderson, and Madison Counties. The Freedmen’s Bureau operated a school there from 1867 to 1869, and its closure may have prompted local African Americans to begin discussions about establishing their own social-educational organization.
The benevolent group formally organized on January 13, 1873, and the founders were Joseph Bright, who had married Mary Jefferson in May 1867; Nathan Bills, who married Rosa Wilkinson in January 1873; William Miller; Abraham Miller; and James Smith. According to the group’s constitution and by-laws, a copy of which still resides at the Greater Springfield Baptist Church in Bolivar, the United Sons and Daughters of Charity formed “to aid and assist each other, attend the sick, bury the dead, and advance the standard of our race and people.” The initiation fee was fifty cents; members were also expected to pay twenty-five cents monthly dues. The United Sons and Daughters was one of several similarly focused African American benevolent organizations to form in Tennessee during Reconstruction. One of the oldest was Nashville’s Sons and Daughters of Relief, which was established on May 26, 1866. One of its founders was named William Miller, but it is not known if the William Miller of Bolivar and the William Miller of Nashville were one and the same person. Another significant early Nashville group was the Colored Benevolent Society, formed by 1869. In Memphis, an active network of male and female benevolent organizations existed, beginning with such groups as the Sons of Ham (1866), United Sons of Zion (1867), and the Daughters of Zion (1867). The “newly established mutual-aid and benevolent organizations,” according to historian Brian D. Page, “emerged from black churches throughout Memphis. These organizations pooled together their resources in order to help African American neighborhoods, creating a vital community framework.”
In 1909, the Sons and Daughters of Charity decided to expand its level of community service by purchasing a lot and building a lodge hall on East McNeal Street, a part of town that emerged in the years of Reconstruction and Jim Crow as the cultural heart of Bolivar’s African American community. As the city’s Sanborn Map of 1913 documents, the lodge hall stood across the street from a segregated black Episcopal Church and next to Union Cemetery. Down the street were the Springfield Baptist Church and the St. Paul CME Church. This grouping of African American community institutions was segregated by physical features and by city boundary lines from the rest of Bolivar. To the north of the African American community buildings a deep ravine divided East McNeal Street from other city streets. With the boundary line running to the west and the north, the town’s city limits were drawn to exclude the African American neighborhood as well.
Within this segregated enclave, however, the lodge hall prospered. In the 1920s, the lodge hall burned down when a fire that started at the nearby Baker Manufacturing Company raged out of control. The African American community raised funds and replaced the 1909 building with a new one, an unassuming frame structure with a hipped roof and dual entrances reminiscent of church buildings, at the same location as the older school. Its appearance was not accidental; the building served during the week and on Sundays as a church building for several congregations who did not have or could not afford their own building. According to a brief history of the Sons and Daughters of Charity, prepared by Arlynne Lake Cheers in 1990, “the structure flourished as one of the first public buildings other than churches, erected by Negroes in Bolivar.” The neighboring established churches also used the building for social gatherings–box suppers, special events–as well as for fundraising events. The building was busy throughout the week with secular and sacred events in the evenings, with church services on Sunday.
Various church groups also joined together at the lodge hall for annual membership meetings, and various church choirs performed for the audience. Local residents viewed the building as a non-denominational setting for gospel music performances; during the lodge’s annual membership drive, it also hosted gospel music groups as a way of attracting people to the meeting. Organizations also have used the lodge hall as a common-ground location for meetings meant to attract a diversity of African Americans from different churches. From 1950 to 1970, the lodge hall’s significance became even more pronounced as it became the only remaining African American cultural institution on East McNeal Street once churches relocated their sanctuaries and built new edifices on the west side of town. These new churches were clustered near the first public school constructed for African Americans in Bolivar, the four-teacher Rosenwald-supported Bolivar Industrial School, constructed between 1924 and 1925, which was replaced by a larger school building in the 1950s. Membership during this period of change decreased, although in 1987 a membership roll counted 117 individuals, representing a cross-section of the city’s African American population.
Today, the United Sons and Daughters of Charity Lodge Hall is the oldest African American community building in Bolivar. Its original paneled doors, its dual entrances, and its unadorned façade speak to the building’s dual function as a religious and secular space within the larger white-dominated built environment of Bolivar. However, the fact that the building is in good repair and remains solid on its foundation is a testament to the craftsmanship of the unknown builders who constructed it before the Great Depression.