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Billy Keyserling, former mayor of Beaufort, led a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Grand Army of the Republic Hall in Beaufort on Saturday, June 25. Hosted by the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, the ceremony celebrated major repair work to the 126-year-old building completed with money from the county's ATAX fund. Photo by Tony Kukulich/The Island News.

Grand Army’s hall grander 

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County funds repair of Reconstruction Era landmark 

By Tony Kukulich 

It may seem unusual to host a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a building that is 126 years old, but former City of Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling was on hand at the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) Hall this past weekend to do just that. 

The ceremony marked the completion of structural repairs to the building, which was built in 1896 and is located at 706 New Castle Ave. Beaufort County Council ATAX funds contributed $115,000 toward this project. 

“Preservation of our Grand Army Hall, and the work being done by the Rev. Dr. Elijah Washington and his team to protect it, has never been more important,” said City of Beaufort Councilmember Mitch Mitchell, who attended the event. “The Grand Army Hall shares the history and contribution of Black Americans to our own emancipation and our continued struggle to be accepted as equal.” 

The Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War hosted a crowd of approximately 50 who gathered on a seasonably hot and sticky Saturday morning for the ceremony, which included a keynote address by James Yancy. Yancy spoke about the significance of the Emancipation Proclamation and Juneteenth, which was recently celebrated as a federal holiday for the first time.

While Beaufort County provided funding for the project, it was the Second Founding of America, a not-for-profit philanthropic partner of the Reconstruction Era National Historical Park and the Reconstruction Era National Historic Network, that did the legwork to secure the grant from the county. The hall project is the first of four Reconstruction Era initiatives that the group is spearheading.

James Yancy speaks about the significance of the Emancipation Proclamation and Juneteenth after Billy Keyserling, former mayor of Beaufort, led a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Grand Army of the Republic Hall in Beaufort on Saturday, June 25. Hosted by the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, the ceremony celebrated major repair work to the 126-year-old building completed with money from the county’s ATAX fund. Photo by Tony Kukulich/The Island News.

“Reconstruction is such an important piece of history because it’s really the only time this country has ever really approached the promises of equality and justice,” Keyserling said.

The quality of the maintenance work done to date on the hall made it a good candidate for preservation work. Another factor moved it to the top of the foundation’s list.

“Because all of the work done was out of sight, it was all structural, it wasn’t visual, we didn’t have to go through the historic review process,” Keyserling said. “Staff could approve it because we weren’t making any changes to the building. The other projects will be making changes, and we are going through historic review on those. That’s why it was picked. They’ve done a great job and the simplicity of the review process.”

The county’s grant was used to repair the underlying structure and floor system of the GAR Hall, a project that took about four months to complete. Keyserling said the original plan was to pull up the hall’s flooring, complete the repairs and replace the flooring. However, a floorboard split when the first nail was pulled, and the team realized that going further would result in the floor’s destruction. The plan was altered and the team instead dug into the foundation to complete the repairs.

“I’m hoping we’ve got enough money to go back and finish stormwater mitigation, because that’s what causes these problems,” Keyserling added.

The Deacon’s Study House, which is part of the Brick Baptist Church on St, Helena Island, is another of the foundation’s projects. Plans call for the building to be moved back to its original location and adapted for use as an interpretive center. A grant from the county will pay for that work as well. A federal grant will help pay for the restoration of a freedman’s cottage located at 1313 Congress Street.

“In our capacity as a philanthropic partner with the National Parks Service, we are basically helping them add places and stories that can be part of their interpretation,” Keyserling said. “Where we put money to improve something, they will end up with an agreement that the Parks Service will have certain access to bring the public into see it. We hope to do that all over Beaufort County and really, all over the state. Hopefully we’ll help them grow a network of sites all over the country.”

The Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) was a fraternal organization founded in 1866. It was composed of Union veterans of the Civil War. The organization was segregated and included separate chapters for Black and White veterans.

A Black GAR post was formed in Beaufort in 1888. Called David Hunter Post Number 9, this post included many veterans who were formerly enslaved on nearby Sea Island cotton plantations. Robert Smalls was counted among the members of Post Number 9 and served as the post commander for time.

As veterans of the Civil War died off, the GAR was dissolved and ownership of the Grand Army of the Republic Hall was transferred to the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War and the Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War in 1939.

Over the years, the hall has been used as a meeting place, a dance studio, a daycare center and a church. In 1940, Zora Neale Hurston, a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance, used the hall as a studio for her documentary, “The Commandment Keeper Church.”

With the completion of repair work, public access to the GAR Hall is expected to increase.

“Grand Army Hall will eventually have an agreement with the (National) Parks Service like we do with the Robert Smalls House, like they do at Brick Church and like they will at Penn Center,” Keyserling explained. “The use agreement will say, ‘You own it. You take care of it. We get to use it, but we help you maintain it, and we help you develop the interpretation of it.”

Tony Kukulich is a recent transplant to the Lowcountry. A native of Wilmington, Del., he comes to The Island News from the San Francisco Bay Area where he spent seven years as a reporter and photographer for several publications. He and his wife enjoy exploring their new home state. He can also frequently be found playing bass guitar with a couple of local bands. He can be reached at tony.theislandnews@gmail.com.

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