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
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
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
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
Rights Act of 1964. Blacks in the city, like Otis
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
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
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.
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.
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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