Muffled voices sound behind the dark wooden door as a young man gently raps his knuckles against the weathered finish.
The door swings open, revealing a group of women clad all in white. They smile and invite him in to find his grandmother. But they will speak no more of their business until he leaves.
The words uttered in this room on Cannon Street are not for the ears of men. Never have been. This is the realm of a sisterhood, born amid strife and built to stand the test of time.
They are members of a secretive society known as the United Order of Tents, a fraternal organization that dates to Civil War times and is run entirely by black women. They adhere to a strict moral code and strive to provide help to those who need it most. But their inner workings remain a mystery, known only to the Tents' progressively graying membership.
For more than a century, secrecy has served as their code, their bond, their protection. But it also has kept the community at large from knowing much about their good works. And it can stifle efforts to recruit new blood in an age when civic groups from Elks lodges to Kiwanis clubs have struggled with declining numbers.
"We're not very good about communicating with the public about our work. We mostly do it among our ourselves," said Ann Blandin of Charleston, a retired social worker who joined the Tents in 1977. "There is a lot we can't tell as well because it is a secret organization."
Some two dozen women huddle in the group's cream-colored meeting room on this Saturday morning. They sit posture-perfect on metal folding chairs, hands folded in their laps, as a pair of portable heaters glow red trying to tame the damp chill. Most of the women are middle age or older. They wear dresses, blazers, pumps and heels — all white, immaculate — as is the custom of their order. A Bible lies open atop a nearby wooden altar draped with purple cloth.
Many of these women have come to these meetings for decades, drawn by the promise of sisterhood and a shared bedrock belief in Christian ideals. Beatrice Givens, queen of the Charleston district, became a Tent member in 1952. Mary Frasier, another ranking member, joined a year earlier.
Frasier followed her mother into the organization and has led one of the district's 11 tents for more than 40 years. "I just have a love of the organization, the sisterhood and the chance to help others," she said.
The mission has changed little since the group's earliest days. It cares for the sick and elderly, helps the poor and needy, instructs the young and makes sure the dead receive a proper burial. They've attended countless funerals, hosted annual Thanksgiving services and raised a pile of money for orphanages, cancer research, a home for the elderly and other causes.
The organization, which has chapters throughout the East Coast, got its start in the 1800s as an Underground Railroad for slaves fleeing the South. The group took its name from the tents the fugitives used as shelter during their escapes. Former slave Annetta Lane founded the first chapter in in 1867 Norfolk, Va. The women called themselves the United Order of Tents of the J.R. Giddings and Jollifee Union after two abolitionists who supported their cause.
The Tents came to Charleston in 1913 and formally incorporated here nine years later. The women met in various locations around the city before purchasing their current headquarters, a hulking, three-story building at 73 Cannon St., in May 1956.
In those days, the building swelled with members and women wanting to join. It was a sign of respect to be asked. A woman had to prove to the group that she was a good Christian and had a solid moral foundation. And don't think they didn't check.
"They were much tougher then, and they were very interested in people," Givens, the queen, recalled with a smile. "You did not do anything wrong in this building. You would have to stand before the altar and asked to be excused."
The Tents still attract earnest candidates, and the group works to build interest among the young with its juvenile program for girls 18 and under. But the Tents' numbers here have dwindled over time, as they have in other chapters and states. The Charleston group boasted 1,800 members in the late 1970s, about 700 more women than the chapter has today. Of those who remain, not all are active.
"There are no men allowed in our organization, and we don't have parties and drinks," Blandin said. "Sometimes that doesn't attract the young people. They want to have fun. But we are trying to lead Christian lives. That is what we are about."
The Tents' 5,700-square-foot building on Cannon Street is showing signs of age, as well, with broken windows peeling paint and evidence of rot. The group renovated the building in 1989 after Hurricane Hugo and rented out the third floor and attic to make extra money. College students trashed the upper floors, and the Tent women didn't have the money to fix them up again. That space sits unused, as does the second floor, where the women once held their meetings.
"With our youthfulness," Frasier said with a wink, "we can't get up the stairs anymore."
Some members, like Frasier, wonder if the Tents would be better off selling the place, in a gentrifying area, and using the money to buy a smaller, single-story building somewhere else. Others, such as the Rev. Helen T. McKune, argue that it would be a travesty to the group's history and tradition to walk away from its longtime home, which the Tents' paid off in 2001.
The group's queen acknowledges the challenges ahead. But she has faith the group will endure, no matter what the odds. "This is a sisterhood, and we just love each other," Givens said. "We have to keep it going. We have to hang in there."