One hundred years ago, a group of African-American women assembled in Charleston, South Carolina under the name of the United Order of Tents of J.R. Giddings and Jollifee Union. The only organization of its kind, the United Order of Tents is a secret society comprised and operated solely by African-American women. The Order traces its roots back to the operations of the Underground Railroad in Norfolk, Virginia. The founder of the organization, Annetta M. Lane, assisted slaves during their escape from the South through their journey on the Railroad. After emancipation, Annetta Lane and United Order of Tents co-founder, Harriett Taylor, recognized a need for African-American women to join together for strength and security in the new free world. To this end, the United Order of Tents was created. The founding members viewed the Order as a "tent of salvation" amidst the turmoil of Reconstruction and intended to uplift the African-American community through mutual-aid and personal betterment.
In 1913, the Charleston chapter of the United Order of Tents convened under a similar benevolent mission and has continually served the community for a century. In 1956, the Charleston chapter embedded the organization's history in the city's landscape with the purchase of 73 Cannon Street. The mid-nineteenth century single house served as the headquarters of the Order for fifty-six years. Since the Order's acquisition, the property fulfilled the multi-faceted needs of the organization serving as a meetinghouse, a stage for the members' sacred rituals, office and managerial space, a fundraising events venue, and an income-producing property.
In the summer of 2012, the building and its services were extricated from the Order due to a city enforced public nuisances code, locally recognized as "demolition by neglect." Presently, the tents are operating out of scattered venues across the city. This disjunction threatens the historic relationship between 73 Cannon Street and the United Order of Tents.
The circumstances surrounding the Order's building attracted attention in the local preservation consciousness. This interest served as the impetus for this investigation on identity and place. This thesis uncovers the historic narratives embedded within the structure of 73 Cannon Street and, consequently, reveals a relatively untold history of a group of African American women. Additionally, this study illustrates the power of architecture to serve as a vessel for identity and memory and to enrich the surrounding community. This study concludes with recommendations for preserving both the historic building and historic organization in order to maintain the sense of place at 73 Cannon Street.