(Disclaimer: Any opinions expressed in this column are those of its author)
(Featured photo: The Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association of Augusta participated in Augusta’s Bi-Centennial Parade around May 17, 1935. Photo courtesy of the CCBA)
It seems almost impossible to believe, but there is not a single Georgia Historical Society marker about the history of Chinese in the Peach State.
That seems to be confirmed by the Historical Marker Database (hmdb.org), the Georgia Historical Society’s web site (georgiahistory.com) and the official web site of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association of Augusta (ccbaaugusta.com).
The closest that comes to any such reference seems to be the writing on a stone gateway of white Chinese marble presented to the Infantry School at Fort Benning, outside Columbus, Ga., remembering American soldiers who maintained law and order in Tientsin and surrounding towns and villages when the tides of Chinese civil war surged across the area in 1924.
But that oversight will be corrected at 11 a.m. Friday, May 19, when the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association of Augusta will become the first Asian organization in the state to receive a historical marker from the Georgia Historical Society.
The ceremony will be taking place at the headquarters of the oldest Chinese organization in Georgia at 548 Walker St. just behind the old Richmond Academy building.
According to the CCBA web site, scheduled to speak are Carla Wong McMillian, the first Chinese-American Supreme Court Justice for Georgia; Elyse Butler, marker manager of the Georgia Historical Society and Dr. Ray Rufo, the first Chinese-American to graduate from a dental school in Georgia.
There will be a traditional performance of drums and cymbals following the ceremony. Then all of the guests will be welcomed inside the building for refreshments and a pictorial history exhibit about the history of the CCBA and Chinese life in Augusta.
Connected with the marker’s dedication will be a smaller exhibit of photos and articles on display at the main Augusta-Richmond County library, 823 Telfair St., from April 28 to May 31; at Augusta University/Summerville’s Reese Library from April 6 to April 23; and at Augusta University’s Greenblatt Library from April 24 to May 15.
Corey Rogers, historian at the Lucy Craft Laney Museum of Black History, in late 2020 pitched the idea of a Georgia Historical Society marker to CCBA President Gary Tom.
Si-Long Chen, the CCBA’s youngest board member, initiated the grant proposal seeking funding for the marker, dedication ceremony, Chinese history presentation and exhibit.
The Porter Fleming Foundation, which heavily supports funding of the Westobou Festival, awarded the CCBA a grant of $6,500 for the project.
Gary Tom applied for the state-approved historical marker in the summer of 2022 with GHS approving the application on Aug. 5, 2022, honoring Augusta’s Chinese residents and the Augusta branch of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association.
The building being honored with the marker dates from 1860, the year before the start of the War Between the States (Civil War); constructed by the St. Mathews German Lutheran Church as its sanctuary.
As noted on the CCBA’s web site, the parsonage (since demolished for additional space) was added in 1874, and the brick Sunday School building with a large assembly room and a stage was added in 1893 to the rear of the church. Then came a recess alcove, primary room and library in 1902.
St. Mathews in 1921 merged with Holy Trinity to form the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Resurrection with a new sanctuary built in 1926 on Greene Street.
The Little Theater League of Augusta used the Walker Street building for several years for various plays prior to The Augusta Players being formed in 1945.
Due to lack of audiences and financial support, the Little Theater League in 1936 returned the property to the Lutheran Church of the Resurrection.
It was briefly used as Morning Star Temple in 1937 and Foursquare Gospel Church in 1938 before the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association bought the property in February of 1939. The CCBA itself had been formed in October of 1927.
Chinese in Augusta started growing in 1873 when an Indianapolis construction company brought about 200 Chinese male laborers to widen and deepen the Augusta Canal.
Most left within two years to work elsewhere, but many remained and opened grocery stores, laundries, restaurants and other businesses in the Augusta area.
Last names like Woo, Lam, Wong, Joe, Lum, Tom, Chen, Ling, Wan, etc., became part of the area’s rich history and places like the Chop Suey restaurant on Eighth Street near First Baptist Church of Augusta, Lam Brothers Grocery store on D’Antignac near 11th Street and the Chop Suey House on Wrightsboro Road near the railroad tracks and lumber yards became legendary.
And after May 19, the local Chinese community can boast of having the first Georgia Historical Society marker in place commemorating the state’s Asian-American history.
Don Rhodes has been a by-line journalist since 1963 writing for his Chamblee, Ga., High School newspaper and two weeklies in Decatur. He has worked for Morris Communications Co. since joining the Savannah Evening Press in March of 1967. He also has authored four national books, four regional books, national magazine articles and album notes for several music artists.