5 Sites of Savannah's Black History

Discover momentous locations from the long saga of Savannah's African-American community

Updated February 3, 2021 at 11:12 a.m.

click to enlarge 5 Sites of Savannah's Black History
Alex Neumann
Savannah Alderwoman Bernetta Lanier stands by Savannah's historical plaque commemorating 'The Weeping Time.'
In honor of Black History Month, we present five sites around Savannah that were all major settings in the long saga of this community’s African-American population, with insight from local leaders and historians to illustrate why these locations are all revered and recognized with commemorative historical markers by the Georgia Historical Society.

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Nick Robertson/Connect Savannah
The First Bryan Baptist Church in Savannah's historic Yamacraw Village neighborhood.

Rev. Andrew Bryan was repeatedly whipped, beaten, and jailed for preaching to Savannah’s enslaved African Americans during the late 1700s, yet he kept returning here until persevering in his mission of building the first Black Baptist church in the United States of America.

According to the Georgia Historical Society historical marker standing in front of the First Bryan Baptist Church in Savannah’s Yamacraw Village neighborhood just west of downtown, construction of an earlier church building at this location began in 1793 soon after Bryan was able to purchase this lot. That makes this site the oldest parcel of American real estate owned continuously by African Americans, according to church historian Georgia W. Benton.

“The whites persecuted him so severely because they didn’t understand the African movement and Christianity combined,” Benton said of Bryan, who was born enslaved but later purchased his freedom before securing the church plot. “Andrew Bryan probably was the first Black to own land in America.”

Bryan was born on a plantation owned by Jonathan Bryan in Goose Creek, South Carolina, where the enslaved were encouraged to practice Christianity and were not forced to work on Sundays, according to Benton.

“Jonathan Bryan was a major part of the great Christian awakening for slaves in South Carolina,” Benton said. “There was no problem with Andrew Bryan being religiously trained.”

While growing up enslaved on the plantation, Bryan met George Liele – a groundbreaking African-American preacher who converted to Christianity in about 1774, and became the first Black Baptist missionary – and Bryan was baptized along with his wife Hannah. With the consent of Jonathan Bryan, Andrew Bryan began visiting plantations around the region to preach to all Black and white people who gathered to hear him, Benton said.

Here in Savannah, a white landowner named Edward Davis allowed Bryan and his growing flock to build a rough wooden house of worship on his property in Yamacraw. However, other white Savannah residents looked upon Bryan’s services with suspicion, thinking them a possible precursor for a slave rebellion, and began interrupting these religious gatherings to violently punish Bryan and the enslaved people in his congregation, according to Benton.

“There was nothing easy about the early church, nothing easy at all. Just imagine someone whipping you,” Benton said, noting that this violence did not deter Bryan from returning to Savannah to preach, even after he was jailed twice. “Andrew Bryan left Yamacraw and came back to Yamacraw three different times, even though he knew he was going to be persecuted.”

In response to the violence inflicted upon Bryan and his followers, Jonathan Bryan and other enlightened white community members defended the practice of allowing the enslaved to congregate and worship. By 1790 Bryan was able to purchase his freedom to pursue preaching full-time, and with the help of his congregation and white sympathizers, he bought the lot where First Bryan Baptist Church now stands at 575 W. Bryan St. for “30 pounds sterling” in September of 1793, according to church records.

Benton says that the story behind the storied plot of land now housing this stately church – with its current incarnation completed in 1888 – is a testimony to the power of unity between people of different races.

“It took Blacks and whites working together. Think about the white trustees that stood up. Think about the white slave owners who stood up,” Benton said. “It took people who knew that something was wrong who stood up.”

Over the years, First Bryan Baptist Church played a central role in Savannah’s Black history, up to modern times. Local civil rights leader W.W. Law taught Sunday school here for many years, according to the historic plaque in front of the church, and in September, Rev. Raphael Warnock – the Savannah native who was elected on Jan. 5 to become Georgia’s first Black U.S. Senator – delivered a rousing speech here while on the campaign trail.

− Nick Robertson

click to enlarge 5 Sites of Savannah's Black History
Alex Neumann
Savannah Alderwoman Bernetta Lanier stands by Savannah's historical plaque commemorating 'The Weeping Time.'

Wails of anguish continually drowned out the patter of incessantly pouring rain during “The Weeping Time” − one of the largest sales of enslaved people in American history, which occurred on the site of a former racetrack just west of downtown Savannah during March 2-3, 1859.

According to the Georgia Historical Society historical marker commemorating The Weeping Time in a small West Savannah park at the corner of Augusta Avenue and Dunn Street, plantation owner Pierce M. Butler sold 436 men, women, and children here to pay off his creditors. Numerous slave traders from near and far descended on Savannah’s Ten Broeck Race Course to purchase Butler’s forced laborers, who in the process were frequently ripped apart from their family members forever.

For Savannah Alderwoman Bernetta Lanier, a West Savannah native who now represents the surrounding District 1, The Weeping Time hits home in multiple respects. Lanier’s family traces their lineage to enslaved people on one of Butler’s plantations, and she lives just a few blocks away from where the 1859 incident occurred. However, it was only in recent years that The Weeping Time started to be recognized here; Lanier and her neighbors had no idea about it while growing up. “We were surprised that this had happened and we didn’t know about it,” Lanier said of The Weeping Time, adding that history is often obscured in regards to major sales of enslaved people across the South. “Those stories have been swept under the rug and not acknowledged.”

Lanier says that the enslaved were often sold in antebellum Savannah’s central Johnson Square, but due to the huge number of people that Butler was trafficking, this sale was held at the racetrack instead. There the enslaved families were kept in horse stables, while their prospective purchasers partied at downtown taverns throughout the multi-day sale.

“During those three days of the sale, it rained that weekend,” Lanier said, noting that the enslaved were kept in deplorable conditions while awaiting their turn on the auction block. “Folks were becoming ill, and I know they were disheartened with what they were enduring.”

The rain kept dumping down throughout the sale, as children were repeatedly torn from the arms of their sobbing parents to be carted away by new owners to places unknown. The aggrieved victims came to believe that the torrential downpour flowed from the eyes of God, according to Lanier.

“God must’ve been weeping because of the tragic situation,” Lanier said, explaining how the sale became known as The Weeping Time.

The historical marker goes on to state that The Weeping Time was widely reported in northern newspapers, and the reaction among readers deepened America’s divide over the issue of slavery in the years running up to the Civil War.

The sale also resulted in a diaspora of this region’s African Americans across the South, with many of their descendants now visiting Savannah to view The Weeping Time site, Lanier said. However, while she is glad that this incident is recognized by the plaque (which is actually located several blocks from the former racetrack location), Lanier believes that a larger memorial, or even a museum, would be a more appropriate homage to The Weeping Time.

“When [descendants of the enslaved] come here, what are they looking at? A monument that’s three blocks away,” Lanier said, while acknowledging that the actual site of The Weeping Time sale is divided by Interstate 516 and privately owned lots. “We need to recognize that and create a separate space where people can come and commemorate.”

Lanier and other community members are collaboratively working toward realizing that goal in a way that can both boost the local economy of West Savannah and pay tribute to the hundreds of African Americans whose families were irreversibly severed during The Weeping Time.

“We consider those properties sacred ground,” Lanier said. “This is bigger than Savannah. It’s an American asset.”

− Nick Robertson

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Brandy Simpkins/Connect Savannah
The historical plaque standing before Savannah's Beach Institute building.

Prior to the nullification of American chattel slavery, the enslaved were strictly forbidden from educating themselves, but after slavery was abolished, the newly emancipated laborers could finally build their own schools.

Following the Civil War, in 1865 Black Savannahians organized the Savannah Education Association to open schools for newly freed African Americans with fiscal support from northern church societies. According to a historical marker by the Georgia Historical Society at 502 E. Harris St., in 1867 the Beach Institute became Savannah’s first established school erected specifically for the education of African Americans.

“The Beach Institute was named after Alfred Ely Beach, for whom Beach High School was named. He was from New York, and he was a scientist and editor of a magazine called Scientific American,” said Dr. Annette Brock, a former vice-president for institutional advancement at Savannah State. “It is through the money that he gave to the Freedmen’s Bureau, in conjunction with the Union forces during Reconstruction, that allowed the Beach Institute to be built there.”

Beach − who donated $13,000 to the Freedmen’s Bureau, the American Missionary Society (AMA), and the Savannah Educational Association − purchased the land on which the Beach Institute and a teachers’ house was built by the hands of the formerly enslaved.

The AMA collected $1 a month from 600 student attendees before the Savannah Board of Education leased the building from the AMA and began operating it as a free public school for black children in 1874.

Four years later, the school broke out into a mysterious fire, and the students temporarily relocated to Fairlawn Plantation on East Broad Street, according to Brock.

“The American Missionary Association administered the school first, and then the school was under the auspices of the Public School System, but after the fire broke out, and the people had to move the school over to the Fairlawn plantation, the AMA reclaimed the school, taking it back from the public school system,” said Brock.

The Beach Institute also became the birthplace of First Congregational Church and the Savannah Boys Club before 1919, when the AMA withdrew from high-school education efforts in the South to focus on higher education.

Following the AMA’s withdrawal from the Beach Institute, the building continued to house many educational establishments until activity stagnated in the 1970s.

Brock said that W.W. Law, Savannah’s most prominent African-American civil-rights movement activist, inquired about obtaining the Beach Institute from the Board of Education (which had regained ownership by then) to boost the King-Tisdell Cottage Foundation, an organization he founded to research, collect, interpret, and present African-American history and culture. The Board of Education denied Law for years, but he prevailed until achieving his goal.

“He had a big broad vision. He approached the Board of Education about giving him the school to be used as an extension of the education of the execution of the King-Tisdell Cottage’s mission. After a board member connected with the people at SCAD, and Mr. Law made contact with them, they actually purchased the building, and deeded it to us for like a dollar,” said Brock. “SCAD painted the roof on the building, and it was turned over to us in a ceremony in 1989. They donated it on account of the respect and esteem that they had for Mr. Law.”

Still today operating under the King-Tisdell Cottage Foundation, the original historic building is home to the Beach Institute African-American Cultural Center, hosting exhibits and artistic and educational programs.

The upcoming #BLM exhibit at the Beach Institute, organized in cooperation with the Savannah Chatham County Public School System, opens on Feb. 3 and continues through April 30, featuring artwork by students and teachers from across the district; visit beachinstitute.org for more details.

− Brandy Simpkins

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Nick Robertson/Connect Savannah
The First African Baptist Church on Savannah's Franklin Square.

By the light of lanterns and the moon, many of Savannah’s enslaved Black residents toiled night after night to build the First African Baptist Church on Franklin Square during what little free time they had.

They completed the sanctuary in 1859, and today this hallowed house of worship is one of Savannah’s primary landmarks of African-American history. A Georgia Historical Society historical marker stands before the First African Baptist Church – which is now freshly refurbished after a comprehensive restoration project was completed here in January of 2020 – honoring the building’s key role in Savannah’s saga from before the Civil War to modern times.

According to Rev. Thurmond Neill Tillman, serving since 1982 as the 17th pastor of the church, the congregation was first organized in 1773 under the leadership of Rev. George Leile and later Rev. Andrew Bryan, sharing roots with the nearby First Bryan Baptist Church. Rev. Andrew C. Marshall, the third pastor of the church who organized the first Black Sunday School in North America here, led the movement to obtain the Franklin Square property where the First African Baptist Church now stands.

The enslaved people who built the church purchased materials for it at great sacrifice to their own financial status, Tillman said, although he believes providence rewarded them soon afterwards.

“They took the money that they had earned, money that they saved up that they could’ve used to purchase their freedom, or the purchase of their family members, and instead used it to build a sanctuary,” Tillman said, adding that the church was dedicated in 1861. “Less than two years later, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.”

Traces of the builders’ heritage are still visible within the church, according to Tillman.

“The building has many, many African signs and symbols,” Tillman noted, such as writings inscribed on some of the balcony’s original pews in West African Arabic script, and holes in the floor of a lower level shaped in an African prayer symbol known as a BaKongo cosmogram.

The church served as an important gathering place for Savannah’s Black community throughout the Reconstruction era, and in the late 1800s its sixth pastor, Rev. Emanuel King Love, was instrumental in establishing Savannah State University, according to the historical marker.

Another notable pastor here was Rev. Dr. Ralph Mark Gilbert, a prominent leader in reviving Savannah’s NAACP branch in the 1940s and a mentor for Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Tillman said. Nowadays, Savannah’s Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum is named in the pastor’s honor.

“Dr. Gilbert was a little ahead of his time,” Tillman said, adding that Gilbert played a key role in the hiring of Savannah’s first nine Black police officers. “He was far ahead when it came to race relations.”

During Savannah’s civil rights protests in the early 1960s, the church served as a staging ground where activists could gather before participating in sit-ins and other demonstrations.

Having filled the role of First African Baptist Church pastor for almost four decades, Tillman is well aware of the building’s significance to Black history nationwide. With an eye to preserving this landmark for generations to come, he oversaw its recent $650,000 restoration project.

“The bell tower was basically deteriorating, and we would’ve had major damage if that heavy bell had come crashing through the floor,” Tillman said. The congregation had to take out a loan to fund this restoration, and in 2020 the church lost considerable revenue when the pandemic forced a temporary discontinuation of building tours.

However, Tillman believes that any hardships that the First African Baptist Church is currently enduring will be overcome by faith, just like for the congregants’ enslaved predecessors who constructed the building by moonlight.

“They were able to make sacrifices. They would pull together as a community,” Tillman said, adding that anyone who would like to help the restoration effort can visit firstafricanbc.com to contribute. “The building became a symbol of not just the struggle, but the victory.”

− Nick Robertson

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Nick Robertson/Connect Savannah
The historical plaque mounted on the former Levy's department store on Broughton Street in Savannah.

Nothing but their own willpower invited Blacks into the “Whites-only” establishments of the Jim Crow-era South, yet that was enough.

At the corner of Broughton and Abercorn Streets, a Georgia Historical Society historical marker is mounted in front of the former Levy’s department store – which now houses SCAD’s Jen Library, with the original department-store façade preserved – commemorating the Black students who, led by the NAACP Youth Council, staged sit-ins at white-only lunch counters in downtown stores in the early 1960s.

Chatham County Commissioner Bobby Lockett was only a freshman in college during these civil-rights demonstrations, and he recalls his experience as a participant in the non-violent fight for equality.

“The sit-ins back in the ’60s were two-fold as far as how you felt: you felt somewhat reluctant because you realized you were at risk, but by the same token, you realized that somebody had to do it,” said Lockett. “We were young enough, we were aggressive enough to realize that we needed to take a stand for what was right for our community and our country. That’s what the sit-ins were all about.”

Students were aware that challenging the stubborn unwritten laws of the segregated South could lead to a plethora of undesired outcomes.

“We were prepared, knowing that many things could happen, including getting spat on which we often did,” said Lockett. “We remember many times in the late evenings there were people standing downtown and in the midtown area on the sidewalks or on their porches with shotguns in their hands. There were groups trying to intimidate us, calling us out our names, calling us the n-word.”

Lockett said that he and other youths were led by African-American leaders W.W. Law, Eugene Gadsden, and other senior NAACP members. They were taught that participating in non-violent protests would be the most powerful type of demonstration, and that they must maintain their peacefulness. “If you didn’t think you could do that, you couldn’t march with us,” Lockett said.

The text on the historical marker recollects that on March 16, 1960, three students who were staging a sit-in − Carolyn Quilloin, Ernest Robinson, and Joan Tyson − were arrested in the Azalea Room, a Levy’s dining area. As a result, Law, Gadsden, and Hosea Williams organized a near-total boycott of city businesses and led voter-registration drives that helped elect a moderate city government led by Mayor Malcolm Maclean. Lockett said that Maclean was instrumental in working toward desegregating the city.

The sit-ins were continuous until October 1961, when Savannah repealed its ordinance requiring segregated lunch counters. The boycott continued until all targeted establishments were desegregated in October of 1963.

Savannah was desegregated “even ahead of Atlanta,” Lockett said with pride. Savannah’s desegregation occurred eight months prior to the nationwide desegregation ordered by the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Following desegregation, according to Lockett, an affirmative-action plan was established between Law and downtown business owners, with Law helping the formerly segregated establishments to find Black employees. Levy’s was the first department store downtown to integrate its staff.

“At that time, my wife, Betty Lockett, was the first person of color to work at Levy’s,” Lockett recalls.

In 1964, Martin Luther King, Jr. declared Savannah the most desegregated city south of the Mason-Dixon Line, according to the historical marker.

Savannah desegregated because “we had good citizens on both sides, Black and white, that were willing to sit down and talk, and work it out peacefully,” said Lockett.

− Brandy Simpkins

Published February 1, 2021 at 4:46 p.m.

Brandy Simpkins

Brandy Simpkins is a born and raised Savannahian and an alumna of Savannah Savannah State University where she received her B.A. in English Language & Literature. Simpkins enjoys writing more than anything else in the world. She is a curious journalist, an astute essayist, and captivating spoken-word artist...
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