The fourth annual Soul Food Sampling sponsored by the Blacksburg Museum and Cultural Foundation will take place on Saturday, Feb. 10 at the Odd Fellows Hall with seatings at 12 noon and 2 p.m.
February is Black History month, so-designated because it includes the birthdays of both Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.
The Foundation is probably best known for operating the Alexander Black House Museum in downtown Blacksburg. Its other property is the building formally called the St. Luke and Odd Fellows Hall located at 203 Gilbert St. behind the Wendy’s fast food restaurant near the traffic circle on Blacksburg’s North Main Street.
After the Civil War, when gatherings of African-Americans were no longer illegal in Virginia, membership in African-American lodges of the Odd Fellows boomed. The lodges were places for community self-help and socializing.
They established funding for members who wanted to buy land or start businesses, promoted economic development in black neighborhoods, and encouraged mutual benefit programs such as burial societies.
From the instigation of the Jim Crow Era around 1905 until the opening of the Civil Rights era around 1965 the Odd Fellows Hall served as a gathering place and community center for the African-American residents of the surrounding “New Town” section of Blacksburg.
During these bitter years, segregation ensured that African-American Virginians were forbidden from attending almost all white venues, and had their own separate entrance and upstairs seating at The Lyric Theater.
Today, the New Town section of Blacksburg is greatly changed. Over the past 50 years, New Town has essentially vanished, leaving behind the Odd Fellows Hall as all that remains of a once thriving black district.
The Odd Fellows Hall was midwifed in March 1905 when the leaders of two African-American social organizations created a joint stock company to purchase for $95 the lot on which the hall stands today.
These social organizations were the impressively named Saint Francis Council of the Right and Worthy Grand Council of the Independent Order of Saint Luke and the Tadmore Light Lodge 6184 of Grand United Order of the Odd Fellows.
The Odd Fellows Hall served Blacksburg’s African-American community well for over 60 years.
During those bitter years it was the only place outside their churches that African-American citizens could hold social events, gather to hold dinners and dances, listen to musical groups, and where the community’s fraternities and sororities organizations could meet
In the 1960s with the beginning of desegregation the Hall gradually fell into disuse.
In 2004, the trustees of the Odd Fellows Hall petitioned the Montgomery County court to preserve the then much dilapidated Hall.
As events developed, the trustees decided to donate it to the Town of Blacksburg if it would be restored and made part of Town’s Museum and Cultural Foundation. The trustees’ donation was finalized in 2005 when the Hall was placed on both the Virginia Landmarks Register the National Register of Historic Places.
Tom Sherman, the vice-president of the Museum and Cultural Foundation and an Emeritus Professor of Educational Psychology, researched soul food in 2014 when the annual Soul Food Sampling event was initiated. The following remarks about soul food are based on his studies and interpretation.
Although obviously linked in popular culture to the food of enslaved people and later emancipated African-American people, the term “soul food” only became widely adopted in the 1950s and 1960s probably from the use of the word “soul” in reference to jazz music.
Sherman writes: “As more main stream musicians were adopting the styles and methods of African-American jazz musicians, and concurrently the civil rights movement was building, musicians began looking for terms that distinguished the ways they played from the commercialized jazz getting more and more attention from popular music.”
Thus the adjective “soul” implied genuine jazz coming from musicians such as Sonny Rollins, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and many others. Soul music was not constrained by the structures of popular music but rather was constructed on the authentic traditions of earlier African-American musicians.
This year’s Soul Food Sampling event will include speakers who lived in and regularly visited New Town and attended events at the Hall.
They will recall what daily life was like, tell who lived in which homes, what they ate, what the homes were like inside, etc.
Sherman anticipates a lively discussion with poignant recollections of the life and times of New Town and other nearby African-American neighborhoods.
The event will give participants a chance to enjoy fellowship over wonderful food while reminiscing about when life in close-knit neighborhoods meant residents knew each other and everyone raised the children.
Tickets can be purchased online at www.blacksburgmuseum.org/event/soul-food-sampling-2/. Space will be strictly limited.
Jim Glanville is a retired chemist living in Blacksburg. He has been publishing and lecturing for more than a decade about the history of Southwest Virginia.