Ann Arbor's Black Elks lodge launches fundraiser to renovate building after a century of service

A new campaign associated with Ann Arbor's bicentennial seeks to raise $370,000 for the organization, which has long served Ann Arbor's Black community and many others.
For over a century, the James L. Crawford Elks Lodge at 220 Sunset Rd. on Ann Arbor's West Side has been much more than merely a home base for the local chapter of the world's largest Black fraternal organization.

The lodge has been a critical lifeline for the local Black community, providing youth scholarships, clothing for the homeless, and a venue for events including Thanksgiving dinners for the less fortunate, community Easter egg hunts, weddings, and funeral receptions. Well-loved and well-used over time, today the striking stone building is in need of urgent repairs and structural renovations. Now, the building has been identified as the beneficiary of one of three fundraising efforts, known as A200 Legacy Projects, associated with the city of Ann Arbor's bicentennial. The campaign seeks to raise about $370,000 to renovate the structure.

Community leaders and lodge members say funds raised will preserve not only an essential building of cultural significance, but a longstanding building block of the entire city. Ann Arbor City Administrator Milton Dohoney says the Improved Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks of the World (IBPOEW), the fraternal organization that calls the lodge home, has displayed a "dedication to community service."

"They're the right kind of organization for us to lift up as we're celebrating our birthday and history," he says.
Ann Arbor City Administrator Milton Dohoney.
Dohoney, who was instrumental in the lodge being chosen as an A200 Legacy Project, adds that while the IBPOEW primarily engages with people of color, the organization has also opened its doors to community members of all racial backgrounds. For instance, local DJs host regular house music fetes every Thursday in the lodge's basement. 

After Dohoney visited the lodge and met with several members, he was sincerely touched by the extensive reach of the organization's care and attention to community building. 

"They shared that community members have come to them periodically when they're on the verge of having a utility cut off," he says. 

Choosing to support the lodge, Dohoney says, is in alignment with the city's bicentennial goal to invest in historically disenfranchised and marginalized populations.

"The other part is that when you look at the full history of Ann Arbor, it hasn't always been inclusive," he adds. "We can't do anything to change the past, but we can damn well do something about the present and the future."

Back to the future

Understanding the lodge's importance to Ann Arbor's future requires a look back at America's unjust past. In the 1890s, racial segregation laws prohibited Black people from joining most private clubs and fraternities. This included membership in the IBPOEW's historically white counterpart, the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks (BPOE). Two Black Pullman railroad porters in Cincinnati found an uncopyrighted BPOE ritual and copyrighted it themselves, eventually leading to the creation of the IBPOEW. The local chapter was founded in 1922 with 30 members.

"Our secret is that we are blessed by the good man above and we treat people right," says 74-year-old Willie Campbell, who serves as the local lodge's leader. "I don't steal, and I look out for the people who are less fortunate than me. That's just me, and that's our organization here."
James L. Crawford Elks Lodge trustee Darren Knox.

Campbell underscores his appreciation for Ann Arbor's support, pointing out that the lodge – which works in tandem with its women's auxiliary group, the Daisy Chain Temple – is the oldest in the state, and one of the oldest in North America. He points to an increase in prominent IBPOEW charter closings across Michigan. For example, there is not even a lodge in Detroit, a predominantly Black city.

"We've been fortunate enough to survive because we have had good leaders and people who were before us," he says. "Unlike some other Elk lodges in other areas, we have the community speaking out for us."

Preserving living local history

Andre Watson, who is a local lodge member and chair of the newly formed Washtenaw County Advisory Council on Reparations, is a leading advocate for the lodge's intrinsic value to Ann Arbor's future. 

"The area has been gentrified so much that the lodge is only one of a few identifiable places that the old Black community can identify from its original community," he says. "For African Americans who can't afford to live here, the lodge is a place where they can still come together to socialize and support each other." 
Washtenaw County Advisory Council on Reparations chair Andre Watson at the James L. Crawford Elks Lodge.
When Watson first entered the lodge's upper meeting area he couldn't resist the "intangible memories" of past Black community members. He says those memories don't just linger, but are "part of a living history that needs to continue to be preserved."

A high priority for the A200 fundraising campaign is structural support. Reinforcements and improvements to the lodge's foundation, framework, and covered wrap-around porch are required. New fencing around the lodge's perimeter will do double duty as a barrier that can protect children from road traffic and provide a charming entrance that beckons to visitors.

There's no place like home

Sharon Bailey, who leads the local Daisy Chain Temple, says there's no other place like the Elks lodge. She first joined the ladies' auxiliary group on March 31, 1984, at the behest of her husband, a proud Elk. Her group supports the Elks' community service endeavors.

Delivering food to shut-ins, leading clothing drives, and hosting community dinners are just some of the group's activities. Bailey is busy finalizing details for a community Easter egg hunt at the end of this month. Asked what would happen if the lodge disappeared, or succumbed to more wear and tear, her answer is simple. 

"We would have nowhere to go," Bailey says. "As an African American, you can feel comfortable at the lodge because it's a space for you. You can welcome guests in, but you know that it's your place. There's no other place like that in Ann Arbor."
Daisy Chain Temple leader Sharon Bailey at the James L. Crawford Elks Lodge.
Her favorite spot on the property is the public porch, which is one of the best spots in the city to soak in spectacular views of the Argo Dam and downtown Ann Arbor.

"I can't stay away. It's just amazing. You can see everything, especially in the winter," she says. "You can see the water and the railroad tracks. It's a nice place to dream."

Darren Knox, one of the organization's trustees, has similar sentiments. His family's connection to the lodge can be traced back to his grandparents. Last year his family held his father's funeral reception at the lodge. Knox's mother, 87, tells him stories of playing on the lodge's porch as a child. His grandmother, who passed away in 2012, passed down lodge stories to him over the years. 

"When the men went off to [World War II], it was the women and the older Elk men who took care of this house," Knox says. "My grandmother would always tell me to protect the 'spot on the hill.' She called it the 'spot on the hill' because we weren't allowed to mingle together." 
Andre Watson and Gregory Pee at the basement lounge of the James L. Crawford Elks Lodge.
Today, he says, "we're like a warm fabric in this neighborhood, we're so woven into this neighborhood. We have a history that makes us valuable to everyone."

While the A200 project serves to celebrate the city's bicentennial this year, Dohoney says donors to the Elks fundraiser will have a lasting impact, contributing to the long-term future of an Ann Arbor institution. 

"We're essentially saying to the community, 'Here is one of the Legacy Projects that could live on after 12 months of celebrating,'" he says. "We think you should give it a serious look and consider supporting it."

Jaishree Drepaul is a freelance writer and editor based in Ann Arbor. She can be reached at

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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