Nov. 13—The Elks lodge for Black people in the city’s art district is in “survival mode.”
The Frederick Allen Lodge No. 609 — named after the Spa City’s first Black public works employee — is located at 69 Beekman St. in a historic yet aging building that has an assortment of needs.
The lodge is also grappling with a declining membership that’s down to just 25 paying members, its president, Kendall Hicks, said Friday. In recent years it had up to 50 members. The annual membership fee is $150.
The lodge is hoping for a significant boost from an annual fundraiser and community meet up, a $30 barbecue dinner prepared by guest chefs from Dizzy Chicken, a neighborhood business, from 2 to 6 p.m. on Sunday. There will also be an after-party with musical entertainment.
Also, Skidmore College sophomore Jacob Smith, helped launch a GoFundMe page asking to “save Saratoga’s Soul,” to contribute to the lodge’s needs.
The organization’s heyday was in the 1960s and ’70s, and the building oozes local history, with an array of photos and news accounts of longtime African Americans of the city, including the late original Hattie’s Chicken Shack owner Hattie Austin.
A 2009 newspaper article hanging on a wall at the lodge quotes late longtime Black city resident Roland Yarbrough’s elation about the election of President Barack Obama.
Yarbrough — an Army veteran who died in 2015, during Obama’s second term in the Oval Office — told the paper he thought he’d never live to see a Black president.
The lodge “represents a lot of history for the people of color in our community,” Hicks said.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, funding it raised in previous years to pay for taxes and other necessities was spent on administrative bills to keep the doors open, Hicks said.
When the pandemic receded, the lodge had a slow progression of reopening and resuming activities and fundraisers, but that’s proven to not be enough to sustain it, Hicks said.
“We found ourselves in a difficult situation where we needed to have some type of emergency help,” he said.
It’s already benefited from support in the community that’s poured in, Hicks said, and some significant work has already been done, including a rebuild of its kitchen floor, whose foundation had rotted, and a new furnace, after the organization went without heat for awhile.
But there’s still close to $90,000 in work that needs to be done, and code issues, including the need for a new second-story egress that would allow the program to hold youth programs in a large upstairs room. Because of the lack of egress, it’s a fire hazard to use the room, Hicks said.
The lodge also needs to completely overhaul its kitchen, which would go a long way toward helping the lodge sustain itself by serving weekly meals, and to provide meals for youth programs it wants to launch, Hicks said.
Hicks crouched inside the dirt basement as he showed a reporter and photographer pieces of its compromised foundation, while celebrating the new furnace.
“I’ve been down here many a nights fixing plumbing leaks, and broken pipes and frozen pipes,” Hicks said, “and I’ve only been here five years. Imagine what the brothers before me had been putting up with.”
He pointed to a donated air conditioning system that he hopes to have installed.
“Imagine being in here in the summertime when there’s no air conditioning,” he said. “It’s smoldering.”
The lodge was chartered in August 1925 as a branch of the Improved Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks of the World.
The national organization had been established in Ohio decades earlier.
It’s the only African-American run lodge in the area, within 100 miles in any direction, Hicks said.
“It’s the last thing standing for the community of color,” he asserted.
The lodge’s mission is to inculcate the principles of charity, justice, brotherly love and fidelity, to recognize a belief in God, to promote the welfare and enhance the happiness of its members, to quicken the spirit of American patriotism, to cultivate good fellowship, and to perpetuate itself as a fraternal organization.
The lodge is named after Frederick Joseph Allen, the first African-American to work in the Saratoga Springs Public Works Department, who was said to have been “meticulous in his dress and high top boots.”
It met in private homes during its early years, and first moved to 101 Congress St. from 1942 until a fire in 1966 forced it to relocate to 69 Beekman St.
The lodge is supported by an active women’s auxiliary, the Mary A. Carter Temple No. 362.
The temple has given scholarships to graduating seniors of color from Saratoga Springs and Spa Catholic High School for many years. It has hosted local spelling bees, oratorical contests and beauty and talent contests.
Its other annual events are a fashion shows and dinner-dance.
“There’s a lot of things that we do in the community, and look forward to doing once we are sustainable, that our community benefits from and our youth benefits from, as well as the members at large and their families,” Hicks said.
Smith, the Skidmore College student who helped spearhead the online fundraiser, wrote an extensive article about the lodge and its struggles for his school’s newspaper.
A Black student from the Bronx, Smith said he was interested in learning about a local African-American lodge and its steep roots in a predominantly white city. He said he found its proximity to closing “worrisome.”
“On campus we have cultural clubs and affinities,” he said. “But knowing about the Elks there now is important to me and it makes me want to build a rapport with them, and have different events and connect our students — especially students of color, or students in general — with them.”
Contact reporter Brian Lee at email@example.com or 518-419-9766.
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