African American Historic Place Demolished in Virginia, Despite Protests

The Masonic Lodge in Hobson, recently destroyed by the City of Suffolk, Virginia. In this 2002 photo, then-Suffolk Councilman E. Dana Dickens III is seen with Hobson resident Mary Ellen Hill, who was one of the two women arrested Monday on misdemeanor charges during an unsuccessful attempt to save the former Masonic Lodge building, seen behind them. Virginian-Pilot file photo.

A Masonic Lodge that was the centerpiece of Hobson, an early 20th century African American waterman’s community in Virginia, was recently demolished by the City of Suffolk, despite protests from the local community and standing in front of the bulldozers.  The 1950 Masonic Lodge served as a community meeting place, general store, school, philanthropic organization, and rallying point for political activism in the village of Hobson, which was recently placed on the Virginia Landmarks Register.  Only portions of downtown Suffolk are locally protected as historic districts.

According to the October 25, 2011 edition of the Virginian-Pilot:

In a last-ditch effort to save a historic building from the bulldozer Monday morning, two community activists placed themselves inside a circa-1912 former Masonic Lodge in the rural village of Hobson and pleaded with police to send a city wrecking crew away.  Instead, police arrested Hobson resident Mary Ellen Hill, director of the Suffolk African American Cultural Society, and Angela Devon Harris, president of Quality of Life in Newport News. They were charged with trespassing and interfering with city workers and were ordered to appear on the misdemeanor charges in late November.  The building was demolished shortly after 8 a.m.

“We just wanted them to give us a little more time to save an important piece of history for the black community,” Hill said afterward. “They refused to listen and escorted us out of the building.”

The building was the latest of more than a dozen in the historically black watermen’s community in North Suffolk that the city has cited in recent years for safety and code violations. Several have been demolished.  The long-running conflict over historic preservation has pitted Hobson residents against the city and one another.

A judge last week postponed a hearing for 30 days on Hill’s request for an injunction to stop the city from tearing down the building.  Circuit Court Judge Rodham Delk said Hill had no standing in the case and suggested she get a lawyer. He asked – but did not order – the city to hold off on demolition until the hearing.  The Virginian-Pilot asked city officials repeatedly last week if they planned to go forward with this week’s scheduled demolition of the building. They declined to provide that information.

Hill said Monday that she had hired an attorney, and that the attorney was going to file a new motion for an injunction when the courthouse opened at 9 a.m.  “I pleaded with them to give us just 30 minutes more, but they refused,” she said.  The city declined to comment on Monday’s events beyond disclosing that the charges were filed.

Hill and others have tried unsuccessfully for years to get federal funding for historic preservation and renovation for buildings that everyone seems to agree are in bad shape.

Is historic preservation heading back to the 1960s?  Take a look at some of the comments in response to this story on the Virginian-Pilot website:

1.  Most of these so-called “historic” buildings have no real historical value. A nondescript wooden building from the 1800’s has no architectural value. No famous American ever lived there. There are plenty of other black (and white) masonic lodges that have been torn down over the years.

2.  If the building really meant that much, it probably wouldn’t have fallen into such disrepair. Not all old buildings are historical structures. My house, for one, has no historical or cultural significance. If it ever gets into such a sad state of disrepair as this lodge, I say “Bring on the wrecking ball.”

Increasingly, poor condition and a lack of maintenance of historic properties seems to be a sufficient reason for demolition (“it’s an eyesore”) and there’s little willingness to appreciate local history (“it’s not Mt. Vernon”).  On the other hand, preservationists are increasingly using bolder tactics to be heard given the lack of influence, literally taking a stand in front of bulldozers to stop destruction. It also raises a complex issue for preservationists–this 1950 Lodge building stands on the same spot as a 1912 Lodge building that was lost to fire.  It was a school in the 1920s and a political rallying point in the 1960s–so what’s authentic here:  the building, the place, or the memories?  What should be preserved?  How should it be preserved?

Although I deplore the unnecessary demolition of historic resources (especially an early 20th century African American village; reminds me of slum clearance of the 1950s), it may help reverse the wimpiness that’s come to pervade the preservation field in recent years.  It was the demolition of the Masonic Lodge in my hometown in the 1970s that spurred a preservation ordinance and a preservation organization, and as a result has saved hundreds of buildings (but we also lost an entire downtown before that, alas).

One thought on “African American Historic Place Demolished in Virginia, Despite Protests

  1. Max van Balgooy Post author

    If you want to see an alternative response to demolition, check out the Seashore Farmers’ Lodge in South Carolina. Its restoration recently received a Preservation Award from the National Trust and is highlighted in the November/December 2011 issue of Preservation magazine.

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