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Fishermen's Hall is a piece of area's cultural history

January 09, 1999|By DAVE McMILLION

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. - Jefferson County can lay claim to some historic moments in black history, including the Niagara Movement in Harpers Ferry in 1906, which laid the foundation for the NAACP.

But now, officials are piecing together the history of another black organization that dates 21 years earlier.

In 1885, Charles Town became the home to a local chapter of a national self-help organization known as the Grand United Order of Gallilean Fishermen.

The group, which had 205 "tabernacles" throughout the East, was formed to set up banking, insurance, real estate and endowment services for blacks.

In Charles Town, it is believed the organization constructed a three-story building that still stands at West and Academy streets.

People in town can still remember the tabernacle, commonly referred to as Fishermen's Hall. Beyond that, how it operated is mostly a mystery.

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Tri-State area historians said they do not know of any other Fishermen tabernacles in the region, although records of a Gallilean Fishermen convention in Philadelphia in 1900 mentions a tabernacle in Harpers Ferry and in Rippon that was known as the Western Star.

In a report to the organization, Thomas H. Nelson, installing master of the Charles Town tabernacle at the time, called the Harpers Ferry chapter "a failure."

"I have tried my very best to hold them up, but finally I had to give them up and declared them disbanded," Nelson wrote in minutes dated Aug. 7, 1900.

"The tabernacles at Charles Town are working tolerably well. There is a slight tendency of discord among some of them, I think the matter is being fostered for supremacy sake. I am working a convention in Martinsburg," Nelson wrote.

The minutes do not mention anything else about the efforts in Martinsburg.

"This is going to be like detective work to figure all this out," said Shepherdstown resident Ann Wilson, who is researching the history of the local tabernacle.

Local volunteers and history buffs who are trying to secure grants to save the building and turn it into a cultural center are relying on a few old documents to put the story together.

The papers were found by Charles Town resident Jim Tolbert while he was cleaning out a house he bought next to his mother's home on Martin Luther King Boulevard.

Among the papers were the minutes from the Philadelphia meeting and a "Roll and Statistical Record of Tabernacles," which listed the locations of chapters and how many members each had.

Each tabernacle had its own name, many using titles adapted from Christian theology.

In Charles Town, the local tabernacle was called the Evening Star, and it had 46 members.

Other tabernacles took on names like Star of Bethlehem, Ezekiel, Tree of Life, Morning Light and Rising Star.

There were 50 tabernacles in Maryland, 75 in Virginia, 20 in West Virginia, 20 in New York, 15 in Pennsylvania, 15 in Washington, D.C., two in Rhode Island, two in Connecticut, two in Tennessee, three in New Jersey, one in North Carolina and four in Jamaica and St. Croix, according to James Fisher, a Charles Town resident who has been researching the history of the organization.

The roll call record also listed the number of members "initiated" and "expelled." There were other entries for "head taxes," current expenses and bank account totals, and "amount for sick." Fisher said he assumes "amount for sick" was the amount of benefits available to tabernacle members if they became ill.

The amount for sick at the Evening Star was $50.45. Four dollars was listed as being in the tabernacle's bank account.

Fisher said the low amount may reflect the time when the tabernacle was beginning or fading.

Fishermen's Hall was located in the heart of Charles Town's black community during the late 1800s and early 1900s, Fisher said. There were other strictly black programs then, such as the annual "Charles Town colored horse show," which would be held in an area east of town that later become the site of the Charles Town Races, Fisher said.

White people had their own horse show, and black people had theirs, he said.

Because the black community was tightly knit, Fisher said Fishermen's Hall and the Charles Town colored horse show were bound to be related.

But making the connection through research has been difficult, said Fisher.

"It's strange that I don't see anything of how they touched off from each other," he said.

John Staley, a Shepherd College history teacher who specializes in African-American history, said gaps in black history are not unusual.

Newspapers operated by whites often did not pay attention to black activities, he said.

Staley said he is not familiar with Fisherman's Hall, although it was similar to other operations of the time. The Freedman's Savings Bank, operated by the Army, offered banking services to former slaves, and had a branch in Martinsburg for a short time, he said.

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