Thirty families under the leadership of General
James Oglethorpe settled along the Savannah
River in 1733. As Georgia’s oldest and
one of the few planned cities during the colonial
period, by 1800,
Savannah ranked fourteenth on the list of the United States’s largest
cities. In spite of migrations out of the city during the War
of 1812, and a yellow
fever epidemic that killed twelve percent of
the population eight years later, by 1860, it was the largest city
in the Old
South. Savannah’s prosperity prior to the Civil
War made it atypical to many southern
The establishment of railroad and steamship lines generated a commercial
boom early in the nineteenth century. Savannah’s
“booming commerce” attracted a wave of foreign-born immigrants and
in-migrations from the north and south adding to the diversity of
the colonial city. Savannah’s free-black population added to the
city’s distinctiveness and contributed to the success of African
Americans after the war.
Bryan established the First African Church of Baptist affiliation
in Savannah, in 1778. Men and women like politician/minister Reverend
G. Campbell and teacher Susie
King Taylor took the lead in
black education after the Civil War.
A century later, the
Rights Movement in Savannah followed patterns established
by African Americans during Reconstruction,
in that local blacks lead efforts to counter racism and bigotry.
The Reverend Dr. Ralph Mark Gilbert reestablished the city's branch
of the NAACP in
1942. As president of the Savannah branch, Gilbert spearheaded voter
registration drives, the hiring of African American public service
personnel, and efforts to preserve the historic districts of the
city. After Gilbert, W.
W. Law presided over the branch from 1950 to 1976.
During Law's tenure, activists in
Savannah began to rely less on non-violent resistance as the key
to civil rights in favor of what was considered more threatening
demonstrations. Conflicts between Law and fellow activist Hosea
Williams surfaced during a riot
in 1963 and evidenced generational
divides between those older activists, like Law, who favored passivity
and younger activists who did not avoid confrontation. In spite
of disagreements, their diligence led to the end of legal segregation
of public facilities in Savannah eight months before Congress passed
Rights Act of 1964. Blacks in the city, like Otis
who in 1964 became the first African American to graduate from Armstrong
Atlantic, slowly began to see signs of change.
Amidst a 1970
decision against the merger of predominately black Savannah
State University and predominately white Armstrong
Atlantic State University,
and a 1971 demonstrations against forced
busing that drew a handful of Nazis, black Savannahians continued
their efforts to recognize the contributions of blacks to Savannah's
history and to American culture at large.
The efforts of Law, Williams, and the thousands
of unnamed activists who attended mass meetings, sang freedom
marched in the streets, and remained steadfast during year-and-a-half
long city boycott,
opened doors for African Americans in Savannah, who in the 1990s
gained more visibility in the governance of the city. In 1996, Savannahians
Adams, Jr. as the first African American mayor and,
two years later, appointed Virginia Edwards as the first Savannah
native and second African American as superintendent of Chatham
County Public Schools.
The legacies of Savannah's civil rights activists live on in the
Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum and the Beach Institute,
popular tourist attractions for those interested in less well-known
African American history. As
Savannah's first legal school for former slaves, the founding of
Institute in 1867, in many ways, marks the beginnings
of the freedom struggle in Savannah. Law, in
cooperation with the Savannah Yamacraw Association for the Study
of African American Life and History, spearheaded efforts to commemorate
black culture in Savannah. He played a key role in the
1996 founding of the Ralph
Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum that works
to continue the fight for human rights through education.
Resources (click here)
Writer: Christina L. Davis, Dept. of History, The University of
Editors and Researchers: Kamille Bostick, Christina L. Davis, Mary
Boyce Hicks, Professor Barbara McCaskill, and the students of ENGL
2400 (Survey of Multicultural American Literature, Spring 2007).
Web Site Designer: William Weems
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