Making History

By Danielle Wong Moores

It’s dusk. Inside the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association of Augusta’s (CCBA) historic building on Walker Street downtown, lights dim and the sound of drumbeats begins. Then, as the lights come back up, the dragon enters. Ablaze in celebratory red and gold, it thrusts its head there and back again as it dances and winds its way among the tables. Children scream, older people laugh and others clap in rhythm to the music or jostle to take a video or photo. 

The dragon dance has been part of many Chinese New Year celebrations at the CCBA, ever since a group of Chinese men and their families — former laborers for the Augusta Canal  and others — first began gathering for fellowship and mutual support in 1920 and then became officially incorporated as the CCBA in November 1927. 

For nearly 100 years, past and present members of the association have been making an impact on the city of Augusta and beyond. This year, the CCBA, the cultural organization that brought these members together, is being recognized as Georgia’s oldest Chinese organization. The state’s first-ever Asian-American historical marker from the Georgia Historical Society will be given to the organization this month.

“There is a vibrant community here. The marker is a beacon of our community.”

 — Si-Long Chen
Photo by Randy Pace.
Gary Tom, president, and Si-Long Chen, board member, both of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association of Augusta.

Paving the Way

Gary Tom, who has served as president of the CCBA for a total of 14 years over the past 33, says his great-uncle, Sam Jue, was among the group of 59 men who originally petitioned for the CCBA to be incorporated. Around that time, city directories show 38 Chinese-owned grocery stores in Augusta, with a population of about 114, including at least four married households with wives and children. “For CCBA members, the CCBA served as a vital resource for fellowship, maintaining their cultural customs, and learning from each other as they began assimilating into their new community,” Tom wrote in a research paper, part of the association’s application for the Georgia Historical Society marker.

For Si-Long Chen — who in March gave birth to her son Paul, the association’s newest and youngest member — the CCBA’s role as a resource still holds true. “I am definitely having a moment of excitement for my biological family and my extended family,” she says. “They say it takes a village to raise a kid, and I’ve got the village, which is the CCBA. … I don’t want to forget that heritage, so I’m glad I still have a way to bring that to my son.” 

That heritage is likely most visible to the average Augustan through the annual Arts in the Heart of Augusta festival. Behind the scenes, CCBA members and other volunteers spend hundreds of hours chopping vegetables, prepping chicken wings, wrapping eggrolls and stir-frying dishes at the CCBA’s hall, then ferrying the hot dishes straight to the China tent to long lines of hungry customers. “It’s our biggest fundraiser,” says Tom.

Additionally, there are many other collaborations. For example, for several years, Goodwill Industries partnered with the CCBA for its Good Boats Dragon Boat Race and Festival. The CCBA was also cited in Augusta University’s successful application for a Confucius Institute. And about two decades ago, the CCBA formed a group called Children From China to serve as a cultural resource for local families with adoptees. 

The organization also funded the Augusta Canal exhibit at the Augusta Museum of History and was recognized by the Georgia Historical Records Advisory Board with an award for excellence in documenting Georgia’s history through its own history exhibit and oral history recordings. Along with other organizations across the U.S., the CCBA provided artifacts for an exhibit at the Museum of Chinese in America in New York City, and its members were featured in 2023’s Blurring the Color Line: Chinese in the Segregated South, an independent film by award-winning filmmaker Crystal Kwok, whose grandmother, Pearl, was a CCBA member. 

Today, membership includes about 60 families, slightly down from a pre-COVID average of 70. But the CCBA is now joined by the CSRA Chinese Association, the Augusta Chinese Christian Fellowship and the Augusta University Chinese Students and Scholars Association. “The CCBA was the first Asian community organization in Augusta,” says Tom. “It paved the way for all the other Asian groups that came later.”

The CCBA’s notable profiles include Margaret Wong, who became the first Asian-American female graduate of the Medical College of Georgia (1946); Evelyn Loo, the first Chinese graduate of the University of Georgia’s then-Department of Nursing Education (1951); Raymond Rufo, the first Chinese graduate of Emory University’s School of Dentistry (now closed) in 1957; Madison Woo, who was elected as Richmond County’s first Asian-American commissioner (1970); Paul Jue, the first Asian-American deacon elected in the Southern Baptist Convention; and Carla Wong McMillian, the first Asian-American state appellate judge appointed in the Southeast, the first Asian American elected to a statewide office in Georgia, and in 2020, the first Asian-American woman in the Southeast on a state’s highest court when she was appointed to the Georgia Supreme Court.

A Vibrant Community 

If raising a child takes a village, applying for a historical marker might, too. It started when Tom happened to share the CCBA’s long history with Corey Rogers, historian for the Lucy Craft Laney Museum of Black History. Rogers, who has successfully applied for several historical markers in Augusta, encouraged Tom to apply. 

Tom spent months working on the research paper required for the application. Meanwhile, Chen found funding through the Porter Fleming Foundation, which awarded the CCBA with a grant to erect the historical marker and plan a dedication ceremony, a Chinese history town hall and an exhibit. 

 When the historical marker is officially dedicated on May 19, it will commemorate the CCBA’s long history of serving Augusta and beyond. “There is a vibrant community here,” says Chen. “[And] the marker is a beacon of our community.”

“When you ask people around town, everyone is surprised there’s a Chinese community this old in the state,” says Tom. “[The marker] is going to leave a lasting legacy to those Chinese who came in the 1910s and ‘20s and had to find a way through …. It created a diversity, which attracted businesses and educational opportunities. We are a part of the cultural experience of Augusta.”

“For CCBA members, the CCBA served as a vital resource for fellowship, maintaining their cultural customs and learning from each other as they began assimilating into their new community.” 

    — Gary Tom

Dedication Ceremony

The Georgia Historical Marker Dedication Ceremony recognizing the CCBA as the oldest Chinese organization in the state is Friday, May 19, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at 548 Walker St. For more information or to RSVP, visit CCBAAugusta.com or follow them on Facebook or Instagram. 

Along with the pictorial exhibit at the dedication ceremony, traveling exhibits are also on display at the Robert B. Greenblatt, M.D. Library at Augusta University’s Health Sciences campus through May 12 and the Augusta-Richmond County Library Headquarters through the end of May.

Photo by Randy Pace.

Appears in the April 2023 issue of Augusta Magazine.

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