Sol Legare Island, South Carolina. Even many locals couldn’t tell you where it is. If you reply that it is between James Island and Folly Beach some may nod an understanding of the general area. But if you are from Sol Legare Island (pronounced Sawl La-GREE) chances are you are a direct descendant of a former slave and your ancestors lived there since emancipation. Your predecessors struggled to make sense of their new freedom and establish a community. Farm land was plowed, crops were grown and the sea and marshes were harvested. No longer was this being done for the master but for survival and for sale, too, in Charleston markets.
A Seashore Farmer? The name has a romantic sound to it. But there were hardships that weren’t so romantic. The more I learn about the time we call Reconstruction the more I admire the members of a struggling new class of people who relied on each other for survival and formed tight knit communities. Sol Legare is one such community. And the need to be self-sufficient manifested itself in the creation of a fraternal lodge. The Sol Legare Seashore Farmers’ Lodge 767 was chartered in 1912 and in 1915 a structure was built to house this organization.
Membership in the Lodge was several pennies per year. A board waived this for a family having a particular hardship. The board also provided a death benefit for a lost family member and assistance with farming and business matters as needed. When someone was “doing without” the Lodge and members helped out – like an insurance company and to borrow Allstate’s slogan: you were in good hands.
The Lodge was a community center in the truest form. Scheduled events such as church and school took place within. Occasional events such as wakes were held in the building. And urgent gatherings happened when islanders heard the beat of a drum beckoning them to come quickly.
Farmers organized their offerings and went off by barge to Charleston markets in the days before a bridge. Yes, they were isolated but with a strong work ethic and mutual support the community survived and grew.
Prior to the settlement of Sol Legare Island it was the site of a battle on July 16th, 1863. The famed 54th Massachusetts, a colored Union infantry regiment, battled here and camped on the grounds that the lodge sits on.
The 54th Massachusetts went on to bravely attack Battery Wagner on Morris Island two days later. These men who had enlisted in Massachusetts were aware that they were likely to die in battle or if captured as a colored soldier in Union uniform would have been executed. Their story is dramatized in the 1989 movie “Glory” starring Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington.
The diorama on exhibit at the Seashore Farmers’ Lodge depicts the battle. This diorama had been on display at the Statue of Liberty from 1970-1990 and then brought to South Carolina where it was shown at two other historic sites prior to its placement here.
Over the years the building had fallen into disrepair. After hurricane Hugo in 1989 a tarp became necessary to attempt to keep the building protected.
The community remained but, alas, the building looked like it may not.
There is a man, Ernest Parks, and he heard this building calling to him. He remembered what this building was to him, his family and his community. He remembers roller skating on the porch boards because the unpaved road was too gravelly. Ernest (on the right above) is also a Civil War re-enactor who proudly becomes a 54th Massachusetts soldier along with his friend James Brown (left). Other roles that Ernest takes on are that of CEO of the non-profit Concerned Citizens of Sol Legare and the curator of the Lodge.
Recently during a visit, Ernest told me about the restoration of the building stressing that about 75% of the original materials were used. If his enthusiasm now is anything like his enthusiasm when the project began in 2006 I am not surprised that he got such wonderful support from the community, black and white. As humble as he is passionate, Ernest acknowledges councilman Bill Cubby Wilder, Folly Beach contractor Michael Riffert, business owner Vance Sudano and the ongoing efforts of Corie Hipp as being instrumental to saving the Lodge.
Listening to Ernest speak is a true pleasure. Despite a Nashville college education and having resided in California and New York, Ernest’s Gullah accent prevails. Ernest told me that in college he was asked which island did he come from (as in Jamaica, or other West Indian island) and he would reply “James Island”, followed by “Charleston, South Carolina” since many outside this area would not recognize James or Sol Legare Islands.
It was Ernest’s personal stories that really made the Lodge speak to me. One story that he told me was about a tradition that elders would still like to see continue. Since wakes were held at the Lodge, it was here that his grandfather’s body was lain in state. As an infant some 56 years ago, being the youngest child in the family, at his grandfather’s wake he was lifted and passed over the body. Ernest explained that this is to give the child the wisdom of the elder, prevent fear of death and allow the spirits to touch. Ernest told me that this symbolic acknowledgment of the cycle of life continues in other African-American communities where there are deep spiritual beliefs such as in New Orleans.
The Lodge to me was a living, breathing entity. Yes, one of its roles is as a museum and it interprets history as experienced by this black community including reminders of Jim Crow. But it is more. It is still an operating organization. The lodge continues to contribute to the community in many ways including having an active, on-going board, being a location for historical conferences, a site for re-enactments and storytelling role playing. I believe that the Seashore Farmers’ Lodge 767 will be as active and as important in its second hundred years as it was in its first. What a testament to its people and its curator! Thanks for the visit Ernest.
Youtube and photo credits on the unrestored Lodge: Seashore Farmers’ Lodge Museum