More than 95 years ago, 59 local Chinese men signed a petition to charter the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association of Augusta.
The year was 1927, and the purpose of the association was to promote the welfare of Chinese people in the Augusta area.
The CCBA is being recognized as Georgia’s oldest Chinese organization, and the association will be given the state’s first-ever Asian American historical marker from the Georgia Historical Society thanks to the persistence of Si-Long Chen, a graduate of the top-ranked Master of Public Administration program at Augusta University.
In 2021, Chen wrote a grant for the CCBA as part of Augusta University’s public administration grant writing course taught by Kimberly Gray, DPA, an adjunct professor and director of college assessment and strategic initiatives for Pamplin College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences.
“Part of the final project of the class is to work with a nonprofit to write a grant for them,” said Chen, who works as a data analyst and web coordinator for The Graduate School at Augusta University. “I’ve been a member of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association for about eight years, and I’ve been a board member since 2019. I became really involved in making decisions, helping out and suggesting ideas because I am the youngest board member. The grant writing just came right in. And one of the things that came up was the possibility of a historical marker because the CCBA was chartered in 1927. Therefore, 2027 would be their 100th anniversary.”
The history of Asian Americans in the Augusta area runs deep, Chen said. Back in 1873, the first Chinese laborers arrived in Augusta to widen and deepen the Augusta Canal.
According to the CCBA, the 1880 Census reported 10 Chinese people living in Augusta. At the time, there were only 17 Chinese citizens living in the entire state of Georgia. Those 10 Chinese community members in Augusta owned eight local grocery stores.
By 1900, Augusta’s Chinese population was 41 citizens, and they owned 29 grocery stores and eight laundromats in the area.
After the CCBA was formed in 1927, members of the association met at several locations until 1939, when it acquired its present facility on Walker Street in downtown Augusta. The facility became and remains the hub and focus of the CCBA community, Chen said.
“A friend of the CCBA, Corey Rogers, who is the historian at Lucy Craft Laney Museum of Black History here in Augusta, also serves on the board of the Georgia Historical Marker Committee,” Chen said. “He suggested the idea that we should apply for a historic marker. He said, ‘There is a rich history of Chinese in Augusta, and there should be a marker honoring that.’ So, I was like, ‘Yeah, we could apply a grant for that.’”
Unfortunately, when Chen was still enrolled in the MPA program, her grant was rejected the first time around.
“But I didn’t want to just give up,” Chen said. “I said, ‘OK, let me try to apply for a different foundation,’ because this became more than just a class to me. This project was about helping out the Chinese community.”
This past year, Chen received $6,500 in funding for the CCBA through the Porter Fleming Foundation, which awarded the association with a grant to erect a historical marker and plan a dedication ceremony.
The Georgia Historical Marker Dedication Ceremony recognizing the CCBA as the oldest Chinese organization in Georgia will be at 11 a.m. Friday, May 19, at 548 Walker St. in Augusta.
Along with the dedication ceremony, the grant from the Porter Fleming Foundation funded traveling exhibits that were also on display this month at the Robert B. Greenblatt, M.D. Library at Augusta University’s Health Sciences campus and the Augusta-Richmond County Library Headquarters as part of Asian American Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander Heritage Month.
Gray said she couldn’t be prouder of Chen’s passion to find funding for the historical marker acknowledging the CCBA.
“The grant for the CCBA is a true validation of the power of Si-Long’s persistence and passion,” Gray said. “Although she encountered challenges and obstacles, her dedication and belief in the project kept her going. Si-Long saw an opportunity to highlight the great history of the CCBA, and her hard work paid off. I’m so happy for her and the positive impact this will have on her, the CCBA and our community in general.”
Wesley Meares, PhD, director of the MPA program at Augusta University and an associate professor in the Department of Social Sciences, said MPA students have had an enormous impact on the Augusta community over the past several years due to Gray’s grant writing course.
“The MPA program places a high value on students being able to have practical experiences,” Meares said. “The grant writing and administration course is one of many of our offerings where students have the opportunity to work with a community partner.”
Gary Tom, who has served as president of the CCBA for the past 14 years, said his great-uncle, Sam Jue, was one of the 59 men who originally petitioned for the CCBA to be incorporated.
“I am part of some of the original Chinese families who came here in the early 1900s and part of the families that formed our organization,” Tom said. “For me, this marker is a recognition of those early families who came to Augusta and created this lasting legacy of families who raised families here and who became a vibrant part of the city. So, this marker is a lasting legacy to honor those families.”
Unfortunately, many Augustans are not aware of the long legacy Asian Americans have had in this area, Tom said.
“My great-uncle came here, we believe, between 1915 and 1920,” Tom said. “Then, he got his sister, who was my grandmother, to move with her husband here in 1927. My father was 5 years old when he moved here, so I am the third generation of this family here in Augusta. I was born and grew up here.
“But when I talk to people, they are really surprised to learn that there has been this Chinese community here for almost 100 years. And so we have tried to get our story out, and we’ve become a partner in the community. We participate in as many community activities as we can, such as parades and festivals like Arts in the Heart of Augusta.”
Tom said he is looking forward to the historical marker’s dedication to honor the Chinese heritage in the Augusta area.
“Justice Carla Wong McMillian, the first Asian American woman in the Southeast appointed to the Georgia Supreme Court, whose family was a member of our organization, will be speaking,” Tom said. “We also have Ray Rufo, past president of our organization and the first Chinese graduate of Emory University’s School of Dentistry, who will be speaking. Another speaker will be Breana James, who is the historical marker and program coordinator for the Georgia Historical Society. Then, we will officially unveil the historical marker in front of our building on Walker Street.”
Not only will there be a pictorial exhibition about the Chinese heritage in Augusta on display, but Chen said the CCBA is also planning to have traditional dance and music involved in the ceremony.
“It has become a festival to honor the history of the CCBA,” Chen said. “We wanted it to be more than just a historical marker dedication ceremony, where people just clap and mingle. We want people to experience part of our culture. And by having a free exhibition at both the dedication ceremony and the public library, we are also bringing educational meaning to the community for free.”
Chen said she can’t wait to see the unveiling of the historical marker that she helped make a reality through the grant she submitted.
“It is so important to recognize the Chinese community here in Augusta because they started with opening grocery stores and small businesses that helped build up the economic livelihood for people of color in this city,” Chen said. “After the Jim Crow laws were abolished in the South, members of the Chinese community became doctors, lawyers, engineers and commissioners in this area. They just continue to do greater and greater things, so I think this historical marker really is important, not just because it is the first Asian American marker in Georgia, but because the Chinese community really brought a livelihood and a vibrance to the Augusta area. And this historical marker will finally recognize all they have achieved in this community.”
Contact the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association of Augusta for more information about the Georgia Historical Marker Dedication Ceremony at 11 a.m. Friday, May 19, at 548 Walker St. in Augusta.