WILMINGTON — A three-story white building with light blue window frames and a darker blue door at its bottom level casts a shadow over the intersection of Princess and South 8th streets. Cars drive by, passengers unaware of the stories within the walls.
With its broken windows and graying stucco, the building at 720 Princess Street is overlooked more often than not. To some, it’s even mistaken as a demolition waiting to happen.
“I know there’s so many people that pass by and they’re wondering, ‘What is that? They need to tear that down. It’s an eyesore,’” said Greg White. “They don’t know the importance of it.”
The soon-to-be Worshipful Master of Giblem Lodge #2, White himself didn’t know the extent of the stories the walls had to tell at first. Nearly 15 years ago, during his initiation into the lodge as a Master Mason, he sat in dark silence on its second floor and pondered what went on in the building prior to his being there.
“You know how they say when you lose one sense, you pick up others?” White said. “I could actually feel the richness and the history of this building.”
Between 1871 and 1873, members of the recently emancipated Black community erected the building, known as the Giblem Lodge. It became home to the second Black Masonic lodge in North Carolina, founded in 1866 not long after the end of the Civil War.
Over the course of the next century, the building would serve many other purposes. As a polling precinct, it was one of the first places Black men would express their right to vote. It functioned as a thriving marketplace, bringing together inventors, craftsmen and artisans for the state’s first “Colored Industrial Exposition.”
“This really represented the ground zero of the Black religious community and the political community,” Travis Gilbert, executive director of the Historic Wilmington Foundation, said. “So it was a polling precinct. It was a place for religious experiences. It served to, kind of, awaken the economic sphere and the Black community here in Wilmington by this room operating as a market.”
Up until 1898, the Black leadership of the Republican party would join at the site to strategize and select party nominees for political offices. But Gilbert said white supremacists on the opposite side of the aisle were not pleased with the existing stronghold.
“They began targeting Giblem Lodge and using the press to print salacious material — untruthful, hurtful facts about this building,” Gilbert explained, “because they were so worried about what this building represented with Black political power in the state.”
Then the Wilmington coup and massacre transpired, what is now regarded as the only successful coup d’etat in the nation’s history. White Democrats deployed violence, murder and arson to overthrow the city, including its rightfully elected Black politicians and Black-owned newspaper, The Daily Record.
After that, things took a turn for Giblem Lodge’s leadership and membership. The organization was revoked of its tax-exempt, nonprofit status. To earn enough to keep going, the Masons sold a parcel behind the building. Hugh MacRae, co-conspirator of 1898, bought it within days.
“We don’t believe that’s a coincidence,” Gilbert said.
But then, Gilbert said, it transformed into Wilmington’s first library for Black residents during segregation.
“It ends up representing their resilience,” he added.
Brothers of the Giblem Lodge still meet there today, only pausing in-person gatherings over the past year and a half due to the Covid-19 pandemic. They plan to resume face-to-face meetings on the first floor of the building in 2022.
Statewide, a movement to save Masonic temples such as Giblem Lodge is accelerating. In Wilmington, HWF is undertaking an initiative to revitalize the building. It is following the lead of the New Bern Preservation Foundation, which is in the midst of a restoration project for King Solomon’s Lodge #1. Formed in 1865, it was the first Black Masonic temple in the state, just a year older than Wilmington’s chapter.
Similar to how MacRae came to own the land next door, Gilbert isn’t surprised the story of the tall white building on the corner hasn’t been widely told.
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that you have to dig to find this information,” Gilbert said. “I mean, look how long 1898 was just repressed and not talked about and purposely buried.”
It wasn’t until more than a century after the massacre that the events began to be widely acknowledged.
Photographic evidence of Giblem Lodge has been difficult for the Masons to come by. Materials retrieved from cabinets were found destroyed by animals over the years and had to be thrown away. White said a box was recently pulled from the basement of the building next door. Inside was a picture of the first Worshipful Master at Giblem Lodge. The photo was decaying and had to be pieced back together to make copies.
“Is it a coincidence that they hid these materials?” White asks. “They kept these papers. They kept these pictures.”
The Giblem Lodge wants the history of the building to now be uncovered and known. After all its occupants have prevailed, what would it be to lose the aging building now for lack of trying?
The outgoing Worshipful Master, Raymond Mott, called former HWF executive director Beth Rutledge last year to seek help. In May, during National Preservation Month, HWF gathered reporters on the first floor of the building –– a yellow and blue room, centered by a thick Bible and checkered floor –– to announce its commitment to help save the building.
“There’s so many other people that they never thought about that. They didn’t want to ask for help because we are supposed to be the helpers,” White said. “But when it comes to something like this, this was an overwhelming task for us to tackle.”
HWF has the experience and connections to bring in consultants, apply for grants and support the overall journey to revitalize the building. Residents of Old Wilmington, a nonprofit advocating for preservation and beautification in historic neighborhoods, is sponsoring the first step: a structural engineers report.
Once complete, the report will clear up the needs of the building and give a better idea of how much it all will cost. Then, HWF and Giblem Lodge can formulate a scope of work and send components of the project out to bid.
Structural engineer E.B. Pannkuk, a specialist in historic restoration, walked through the lodge Tuesday morning with White, Gilbert and Junior Warden Deonta Clark. They examined the exterior walls, poking at eroding bricks and pointing out salvageable windows. They discussed how to protect the mosaic floor between now and the point they can work on the interior. They identified immediate safety hazards and predicted what the priorities would be moving forward.
Gilbert expects they will send projects out to bid by the spring.
Giving it back to the community
At the end of it all, the revitalized lodge will serve once again as a community center for the expression of Black history and culture. The second floor, which has been unused for close to a decade, would be available to rent for social events or as a meeting space. The grand vision also includes a future library and museum on the third floor.
The top story has sat unutilized the longest, for at least a dozen or so years, and is possibly the grandest of all the rooms but in the poorest condition.
“I always get goosebumps in this room, just to think about the history,” Gilbert said. “I mean, this is a sacred ground for our entire city.”
HWF has been penning a local landmark application to go before the city’s Historic Preservation Commission and Wilmington City Council next year. If approved, Giblem Lodge would join designated locations, such as the 6th Street Bridge, Greenfield Lake, and the Chestnut Street Presbyterian Church, not far from the Giblem.
After the local designation, Gilbert said the goal is to obtain the state and national level recognition, two tasks that will take a while.
“We’re in it for the long run,” he said. “We will conclude this project when this building is preserved and it has the significance and the dignity that this building deserves.”
“And it does deserve a lot of dignity and respect,” White said.