Celebrate Black History Month and learn about the First African Baptist Church, the oldest continuous black church in North America. You’ll also meet civil rights leaders W.W. Law and Rev. Ralph Mark Gilbert. Step back through time with exhibits and experiences detailing Savannah’s role in the civil rights movement.
Organized in 1773 under the leadership of Rev. George Leile, the First African Baptist Church has existed longer than the United States of America. Here, you’ll discover how religion impacted traditions in the South. Tour exhibits celebrating the church’s 17 pastors, plus see handwritten records and communion sets from 1814. This landmark of black religious history is available for tours at specific hours Tuesday through Sunday.
The Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum is named after one of the prominent leaders of Savannah’s civil rights movement, Rev. Ralph Mark Gilbert, who was the 13th pastor of the First African Baptist Church. As president of the Savannah branch of the NAACP, Rev. Gilbert established the West Broad Street YMCA, helped in hiring Savannah’s first black police officers, and assisted with the NAACP’s voter registration drives. At the museum you’ll find historic photos, documentaries, interactive exhibits, including an NAACP organization exhibit, a fiber-optic map of significant civil rights sites, and a lunch counter where sit-ins occurred. Georgia’s official civil rights museum offers three floors of exhibits and is open Tuesday through Sunday, 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
Westley Wallace “W.W.” Law
Westley Wallace “W.W.” Law, known as “Mr. Civil Rights,” is perhaps the most influential person of the civil rights movement in Savannah. Law worked as a mail carrier for the U.S. Postal Service for over 40 years, but he was fired from this position in 1961 because of his civil rights activities. Only after aid from NAACP leaders and President John F. Kennedy was he reinstated. He served for 26 years as president of the Savannah chapter of the NAACP and was credited for keeping Savannah’s civil rights activities more peaceful than those in other Southern cities. After his NAACP presidency, Law assisted the establishment of the King-Tisdell Cottage Museum, Beach Institute African-American Cultural Center, the Ralph Mark Gilbert Rights Museum and the Negro Heritage Trail Tour. He received many prestigious awards throughout Georgia and is revered as a crusader for justice and civil rights for African-Americans.
Built in 1867 by the Freedmen’s Bureau, the Beach Institute was established by the American Missionary Association to educate newly freed slaves. Named after the New Yorker Alfred Ely Beach, editor of Scientific American, the site became the first free public school for black children in 1875. Unfortunately, enrollment declined and the school was forced to shut down in 1919. Now, the Beach Institute African-American Cultural Center is where visitors receive a full schedule of programs and exhibits celebrating African-American art. The center is open every Tuesday through Saturday, noon to 5:00 p.m.
Along Savannah’s Negro Heritage Trail, you’ll find a cottage that embodies the African-American entrepreneurial class. The home was originally purchased in 1925 by African-American business owners Eugene and Sarah King who owned a laundry and confectionery business, respectively. After Eugene’s passing in 1941, Sarah became married to longshoreman Robert Tisdell, but only for a short while as she herself passed away. In 1980, the home stood in the middle of an area targeted for urban renewal and was threatened with demolition. W.W. Law rescued the cottage, donated property and assisted in moving the cottage to its new and present location in the Beach Institute neighborhood. Here, you’ll find exhibits that cover slavery and emancipation, black entrepreneurship in Savannah, Gullah-Geechee culture and the life and achievements of founder W.W. Law. You can tour this storied building Tuesday through Sunday, noon to 5:00 p.m.
Whether you’re looking to brush up on your African-American history or explore the civil rights movement, Savannah has lots to offer. Book your stay in Savannah today and let the Hostess City be your guide to an immersive trip into Georgia’s rich African-American heritage.