Black Savannah in a Southern City That Reveres and Preserves Its History, Sites Where Great Moments of Emancipation and Civil Rights Progress Took Place Keep the Memories Alive

Article excerpt

SAVANNAH, Ga. -- It was in this historic city on the Georgia

coast, at the height of the Civil Rights movement in 1964, that

the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. declared Savannah the

most-integrated city in the South.

And, in fact, the city had done much to earn that title.

The public schools had just been integrated, several years

before Jacksonville and much of the South. In 1947, the first

black police officers in the state came on duty in Savannah. And

the oldest black church in the country is there.

It was not all easy, though. There were meetings, marches and a

16-month boycott. But there was little violence.

And, this being Savannah, where history is preserved and where

touring and tourism come so easily, there are plenty of ways to

learn that history, to see where it was made.

The Negro Heritage Trail Tours doesn't have the big fancy buses

other tour companies have. Instead, tourists are shuttled around

in a funky brown 14-passenger van during the two-hour tour.

The highlight of the tour and the centerpiece of

African-American tourism in Savannah is the Ralph Mark Gilbert

Civil Rights Museum, which opened on Martin Luther King Jr.

Boulevard in September 1996. Since then, about 50,000 people a

year have visited it.

Gilbert was the pastor of First African Baptist Church and

reorganized and revitalized the Savannah chapter of the National

Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1942.

Jacksonville's own James Weldon Johnson founded that NAACP

chapter in 1917.

The yellow brick building opened as the Wage Earners Savings

and Loan Bank in 1914 and by 1927 was the largest black-owned

bank in the country. It failed with the crash of 1929, though.

The building housed an insurance company and the local NAACP

offices until the museum moved in.

The museum presents the history of Savannah's African-Americans

from the end of the Civil War through the civil rights movement.

There are interactive computers, including one that gives a time

line of Savannah's civil rights history. Pick a year and the

computer shows what was happening then.

Displays of old laws include a Georgia law in 1866 defining a

"person of color" as anyone who has at least 1/8 African-American

blood. A 1903 law declares "white and colored children shall not

attend the same school."

A fiber optic map shows the sites of 87 civil rights events in

town. Ask for "demonstrations" and those sites light up, with

information available about each one.

The museum has a small theater that looks like a church,

appropriately because so much of the civil rights progress began

in churches. A 15-minute video tells of the turbulent '60s

through the memories of the participants. It's especially

interesting because the faces and voices are not those of the

national leaders so identified with the era. They are the

ministers and students who lived in Savannah and made their

stands in their hometown.

One was W.W. Law. He worked for the post office and was

president of the local NAACP from 1950 to 1976.

He's 75 now and retired, but has become the unofficial

chronicler of Savannah's African-American history. He gets

impatient quickly at the younger and more foolish people who

don't have his knowledge, but his memory is sharp. Not only can

he give full details on the last 30 years, he'll quickly recite

the military maneuvers that led to the Union's capture of

Savannah in 1864.

March 1960 is an important time to Law. …