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Historic Charles Town building nearly restored

Journal photo by Ron Agnir The front exterior of Fisherman’s Hall is shown in Charles Town.
Journal photo by Ron Agnir
The front exterior of Fisherman’s Hall is shown in Charles Town.

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. — After 20 years of renovations, Fisherman’s Hall in Charles Town will soon be restored to its former glory.

The African American Community Association of Jefferson County began revitalizing the historic building in 1994 after it was marked to be torn down because of its condition.

Originally built in 1885, Fisherman’s Hall served as an educational meeting space for the black community in the aftermath of the Civil War, according to James Tolbert, president of the AACA.

“It was built by a group of black men who wanted to start a benevolent society, which would teach former slaves about things like banking and health,” Tolbert said.

Established by the Grand United Order of the Galilean Fisherman, Fisherman’s Hall became one of the first buildings of its kind in the nation.

During its prime, the center was surrounded by black leaders who supported the community and were dedicated to empowering others. Chester Wainwright, the first black doctor in Jefferson County, established roots across from the hall, where he lived and practiced medicine.

The building also served as a refuge to organizations that didn’t have a meeting space and its members who had no place to go at the time.

George Rutherford, the president of the Jefferson County NAACP, said citizens used the building as a sanctuary before segregation.

“When they couldn’t go to white restaurants, they would come here and it would make them forget,” Rutherford said, recalling memories of walking to the hall Sundays for a soda.

However, Fisherman’s Hall almost became a forgotten landmark in the 1980s, when it suffered from disuse because of a declining neighborhood.

Members of the AACA saved the property in 1994 when they took ownership of the building and became a nonprofit organization.

Now, with its renovations nearing completion, the center will again be fully accessible to the community.

The three-story building has a variety of conference and meeting rooms, along with bathrooms on each level and a functional kitchen area.

“It’s a far, far cry from where it used to be,” Rutherford said. “The building was filled with bird nests and even snakes. … The back was so filled with trash, you couldn’t even see over the top of it.”

Rutherford said nearly a half a million dollars over the span of two decades has made the space what it is today.

To help restore Fisherman’s Hall back to its former state, the AACA received an America’s Treasures grant through the National Park Service, along with grants from the governor’s community participation program and donations from area organizations and its members.

Two years ago, the Preservation Alliance of West Virginia presented Fisherman’s Hall with a Historic Preservation Award for its salvation of the building and renovations.

Tolbert said the importance of the revitalization process was to return the historic building to its former state so that everyone in the county can utilize the space.

“It’s designed to be a community center and these renovations take us back to what the building was originally meant for,” Tolbert said.

The community space currently hosts a number of meetings from a variety of organizations including American Public University Systems and the city of Charles Town.

– Staff writer Chelsea DeMello can be reached at 304-263-8931, ext. 215, or twitter.com/cdemelloJN.

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