WESTLEY WALLACE LAW remains one of Savannah's most multifarious figures.
Born in 1923, the Boy Scout, postal worker and army veteran earned the respect of generations for his leadership in the city’s relatively peaceful Civil Rights movement. He championed African American history and was instrumental in the creation of The King-Tisdell Cottage Museum, the Beach Institute, the Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum and the Negro Heritage Trail Tour.
W.W. Law was also a passionate preservationist, amassing vast amounts of photographs, papers, artwork and other artifacts that documented African-American life in Savannah from the mid-19th century through the first few years of the 21st.
Efforts to categorize his stockpiled legacy have been in effect since his death in 2002, and the first phase of a city-sponsored archival project is complete and ready for research. The W.W. Law Photograph Collection can now be viewed in its entirety online at any time, and those seeking primary source materials can access them by appointment at City Hall.
See a slideshow of representative photos here.
“The city accepted the responsibility to catalog, preserve and provide public access to what we see is an important community resource,” says Luciana Spracher, Director of the City of Savannah’s Research Library and Municipal Archives, of the decision to take over those tasks from the W.W. Law Foundation.
Spracher and project archivist Lacy Brooks cataloged and digitized over a thousand photographs for the project, including images from Law’s quarter-century turn as the president of the local chapter of the NAACP. Notable historic preservation projects, portraits of internationally-lauded African-American artists and snapshots of decades of community leaders also appear.
“This collection definitely represents the diversity of his talents,” Spracher observes.
While some of the images were taken by Law himself or his mother, Geneva W. Law, many of the photographers remain unknown. Spracher notes that many of the descriptions are also incomplete and encourages people to come forward with information to fill in the blanks.
When it comes to showcasing the breadth of Law’s historical endowment, the photographs are just the beginning: The second phase of the project will focus on Law’s art collection, which includes watercolors by Richard Low Evans and pieces by Chicago-based artist Margaret Burroughs. Beginning in January, the public can view a special selection at two exhibits hosted by City Hall and the Carnegie Library.
The third phase of the W.W. Law Collection is its most formidable: Itemizing Law’s papers and letters from his tenure with the NAACP. The cache has barely been touched, and Law’s prolific correspondence with national Civil Rights leaders in the 1960s may reveal some interesting surprises.
As his tremendous storehouse finally begins to be categorized and systematically archived, it elevates the collection’s significance even further.
“We can no longer say this is just African American history,” says Spracher.
“This is Savannah history.”