Editor’s Note: Velma Maia Thomas delivered this history at the recent centennial celebration hosted by The Odd Fellows Buildings owner and restorer Janis Perkins.
One hundred years ago all of Black Atlanta was abuzz. The soul-lifting occasion? The opening of the Odd Fellows Buildings on Auburn Avenue.
Soul lifting because the unveiling signaled a new era for the “Negro Race.” The Odd Fellows Buildings—the office tower and auditorium—represented the genius of a people 50 years removed from slavery.
Just a few facts about the Odd Fellows Buildings:
They were built under the leadership of Benjamin Jefferson Davis, District Grand Secretary of the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows. Davis was a leading black republican, a visionary and editor of the Atlanta Independent, considered the most radical newspaper in the South.
Under his direction the Georgia District of the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows grew to 33,000 members. By 1912 it was considered the wealthiest black fraternal organization in the South.
The Odd Fellows office tower was financed at a cost exceeding $100,000. That would be more than $2.3 million dollars today.
The complex was built on-time and debt free!
So important was the structure that it was featured in the NAACP’s Crisis Magazine, edited by W. E.B. DuBois. This was quite a compliment as DuBois and Davis rarely saw eye-to-eye.
So important was the complex that renowned leader Booker T. Washington gave dedication remarks at the opening of the Auditorium.
So important was the grand opening of the tower that several thousand people, everyday people, attended the opening ceremony, and several thousand had to be turned away.
Walk with me, if you will, in the footsteps of those who first stood What did they see? In the Atlanta Independent newspaper, April 5, 1913, we find:
“The dedication of the Odd Fellows office and fraternal building last Tuesday evening was perhaps the most stupendous effort on business lines ever undertaken and carried out to the success of the Negro race in the United States. The exercises were held in the main auditorium of Big Bethel A.M.E. Church and this most spacious edifice was packed to overflowing long before the time set for the entertainment to begin.
“It is estimated that there were in excess of five thousand persons who stood outside and who could not get admission even to stand. Distinguished churchmen, leading business and professional men, artisans mechanics, laboring people, students, women and children of every creed, turned out en masse. Bishop [Joseph] Flipper uppermost in the hearts of everybody, presided in his own inimitable manner and the program was executed on the minute…The exercises over, the public was invited to make inspection of the building and it was a sight to behold… . The contractor Mr. R.E. Pharrow has executed one of the most perfect pieces of mechanical art to be found in the country. Its broad hallways, magnificent in white marble and mosaic tiling, the superb double Otis elevators, the perfection in their line, the brilliant electric lights that turned night into day, the splendidly appointed offices of Negro business and professional men, and the click of scores of typewriters mark a new birth for the Negro in Georgia, and an inspiration to the race as could scarcely be dreamed.”
Later that year, Booker T. Washington traveled to Atlanta to view the Odd Fellows tower. He wrote in the Atlanta Independent of his impression of the edifice:
“In every way I found that this building represented the rapid upward march of the colored people of Atlanta and of Georgia at large. Negro ambition conceived the vision, Negro brains devised the plans, Negro money paid for the brick and mortar and Negro hands and brains placed the building there. …Fifty years ago it is doubtful if there was a set of Negroes in the world who could do what the contractor, Mr. R.E. Pharrow, has done in constructing such a monument of Negro progress.”
Black businesses soon filled the office tower. There we would find a Negro bank, tailor shop, barber shop, café, two soda fountains and the Black Amusement Company. There were 42 offices on the second and third floors, leased by lawyers, doctors, real estate men and insurance men. The fourth floor held the offices of the Atlanta Independent newspaper. Fifth and six floors were reserved for lodge meetings. Practically every room in the building was rented. Rent in all yield 11 percent interest on a $100,000 investment.
It housed the elegant roof garden for fine dining and entertainment, and later the Bailey’s Royal Theatre, the only theatre in Atlanta where African Americans could sit on the main floor.
The following year, in 1914, the 1,500 seat Auditorium opened to tremendous excitement. Booker T. Washington gave dedication remarks. Come with me if you will and enjoy the fanfare!
“The opening of the Odd Fellows $100,000 Auditorium by Booker T. Washington Tuesday night was a epoch maker in the history of the race….The ovation given him by the citizens of Atlanta and the Odd Fellows in particular was only worthy of the man.
“He arrived in the city Tuesday at 2:25 p.m. and was met at the Terminal Station by a committee of representative citizens in automobiles. The committee reception was made up of leading clergy, business and working men. Mechanics, preachers, teachers, lawyers and newspaper men constituted the committee.
“He was driven from the Terminal Station down Mitchell to Whitehall, down Whitehall to Auburn, down Auburn to the Gate City Drug Store where the committee of thirty briefly was entertained by that prince good fellow, Dr. Moses Amos. The procession of automobiles was led by Dr. A.D. Jones and District Grand Master B.S. Ingram. From the drug store the party was driven to Morris Brown University where the student body was addressed by Principal Booker T. Washington, Secretary E. J. Scott and Editor B.J. Davis. Hon. Henry Lincoln Johnson acted as Master of Ceremonies assisted by President Fountain.
“After the entertainment was over at Morris Brown, a select party was driven to the spacious home of Hon. A.F. Herndon on University Place, where a sumptuous repast was awaiting, presided over by Madam A.F. Herndon…At 8 o’clock he appeared from the Butler street entrance on the arm of District Grand Secretary Davis. …At the appearance of Mr. Washington the crowd in the auditorium arose and cheered for many minutes. The applause was prolonged and deafening. As the great leader entered the house the orchestra played a popular air. ..Mr. Washington, for one hour and ten minutes, held his audience spellbound, not a person left the house.”
We celebrate the Odd Fellows Buildings because the complex has stood the test of time. Despite the ups and downs of the race, the Odd Fellows complex stood. It stood after the demise of the Order and the death of Benjamin Davis.
It stood, although perhaps leaning if not physically, spiritually, throughout the 1960s when the buildings, as many others on Auburn Avenue, began to decline.
Thankfully, Atlantans recognized this jewel,, and in the 1970s leaders and everyday citizens rallied to revitalize Sweet Auburn. In 1976 Auburn Avenue was designated a National Historic Landmark.
In 1987, architect Robert “Skip” Perkins and his wife, Janis, and their friend Dan Moore, Sr., film maker and founder of the APEX Museum on Auburn Avenue, envisioned refurbished Odd Fellows Buildings. Skip Perkins passed before the project was completed. Janis Perkins took the baton, completing the project in 1991, a year after her husband’s death.
We celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Odd Fellows Buildings to say thank you to the men and women who peeled off worn dollars and saved thin coins to build something greater than themselves–something that would uplift the race.
Velma Maia Thomas is a local historian and author.