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Merging Savannah's State Universities

The NAACP files a federal lawsuit to end separate and unequal practices at colleges in Georgia and other southern states.


The Nazis Protest Busing

Members of the National Socialist White People's Party demonstrate against busing in the city.


President Nixon Tours Savannah

The President draws crowds to hear his plans for peace in Vietnam, and draws attention to Georgia's upcoming gubernatorial election.


The Riots of 1963

Mass protests over segregated city facilities erupt into violence.


The Sea Islands during the Civil Rights Era

Pride in an African heritage catalyzes conservation and preservation movements on Georgia's coastal islands.


Hosea Williams Leads Economic Boycott

With his trademark overralls and megaphone, Williams organizes a boycott throughout the city. 


 

 

Savannah

Under the leadership of General James Oglethorpe, thirty families settled along the Savannah River in 1733. Savannah’s “booming commerce” attracted a wave of foreign-born immigrants and in-migrations from the north and south while religious persecution in Europe propelled many to seek religious freedom in Savannah. The influx of migrants added to its religious and ethnic diversity; by the second half of the decade the city demographics included Lutherans, Moravians, Anglicans and Jews from Germany, Scotland, Ireland, Wales and other parts of Europe. Free blacks added to the city’s early distinctiveness. In 1778, the Reverend Andrew Bryan established the First African Church of Baptist affiliation in Savannah.

The establishment of railroad and steamship lines generated a second commercial boom early in the nineteenth century. As Georgia’s oldest city during the colonial period, and one of the few planned cities in America, by 1800, Savannah ranked fourteenth on the list of the United States’s largest urban areas. In spite of an exodus of residents during the War of 1812, and a yellow fever epidemic eight years later that killed twelve percent of the population, Savannah prospered prior to the Civil War.

With the start of the war, African American men and women took the lead in reconstructing the south. The Reverend Tunis G. Campbell served in the House of Representatives and help found the Republican Party in Georgia. Henry McNeal Turner became the first AME bishop in Georgia. Georgia native Susie King Taylor, the first black teacher to teach former slaves in a free school in Georgia, pioneered Like many literate former slaves, Taylor learned surreptitiously from free blacks and white youth in Savannah before emancipation. In 1902 she published Reminiscences of My Life in Camp with the 33d United States Colored Troops, Late 1st S.C. Volunteers, the only surviving memoir from an African American woman who traveled with a Union regiment. This text describes her roles as cook, nurse, laundress, and teacher of black soldiers and students.

Northerners also played a key role in educating black Savannahians. In 1867, the American Missionary Association in collaboration with the Freedmen's Bureau founded the Beach Institute, one of the first legal school for former slaves equipped with a majority of white northern female teachers.

In many ways, the nineteenth century efforts of pioneers like Bryan, Campbell, Turner, and Taylor represent the beginnings of the freedom struggle in Savannah. A century later, the Civil Rights Movement followed patterns established by African Americans during Reconstruction. In Savannah, 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, 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 many perceived as more threatening demonstrations. Conflicts between the moderate Law and more outspoken fellow activist Hosea Williams surfaced during a riot in 1963 and demonstrated generational divisions between older activists, like Law, who favored temperance and younger activists, like Williams, who did not avoid confrontation. In spite of these disagreements, their diligence ended legal segregation of public facilities in Savannah eight months before Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Blacks in the city, like Otis S. Johnson, who in 1964 became the first African American to graduate from Armstrong Atlantic University, slowly began to experience evidence 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 songs, marched in the streets, and remained steadfast during a city boycott from March 1960 to October 1961 organized to dismantle segregation of public facilities and increase the visibility of blacks in the public sector. This march led to the desegregation of city parks, swimming pools, public transportation, and restaurants in 1961. These activists opened doors for African Americans in Savannah, who in the 1990s gained more visibility in the governance of the city. In 1996, Savannahians elected Floyd 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.

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. The legacies of Savannah's civil rights activists live on in the Museum and the Beach Institute, popular tourist attractions for those interested in less well-known African American history.

Suggested Resources (click here)

Writer: Christina L. Davis, Dept. of History, The University of Georgia

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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