Beach Institute

The Beach Institute historical marker was dedicated on October 16, 2008. View the Beach Institute historical marker listing.


Historical Background

Created by SCAD student Melina Gooray as part of her SCAD art history department coursework, with guidance from art history professor Holly Goldstein, Ph.D., 2014.

In 1865, only months after U.S. forces led by General Sherman entered Savannah, the Protestant-based American Missionary Association (AMA) from Albany, New York came down to help establish a school for freed slaves. After operating in a series of temporary spaces, including the Methodist Church on South Broad Street and the Massie School, the AMA decided to officially build a schoolhouse. The project was funded by a generous donation of $13,000 from Alfred E. Beach, the editor of Scientific American Magazine and inventor of the first New York City subway system. In late December of 1867, the structure on the northeast corner of Harris and Price Streets was erected by the Freedmen’s Bureau (figs. 1-2). Designed by the Atlanta architect Mr. John Boutelle, the final structure had two stories and a basement. The first and second floors were meant for primary and upper classes respectively, and had sliding doors that could divide the open, large rooms into four separate classrooms. The building was fitted with blackboards, desks and furniture. Appropriately named “Beach Institute” in honor of Alfred E. Beach, it was the first school to open in Savannah for the education of African Americans after emancipation. In an opening ceremony for the school, a group of two hundred children sang “Hosanna” and “Where Liberty Dwells Is My Country.” [i]

There were 600 scholars in the original student body, with 9 female teachers and one male principal. Tuition cost $1 a month. In 1874, the institute was taken over by the Savannah Board of Education and became a free public school for black children. Only four years later, a fire caused the building to be temporarily unusable. At this time, the AMA resumed control. The association felt as though the standard of education had declined under the Savannah Board of Education, and aimed at improving the school. However, the 1891 opening of Georgia State Industrial College Thunderbolt (now Savannah State College) caused a decline in enrollment. The student body declined even further after Savannah’s first public high school opened on Cuyler Street in 1914. In 1919, the school was forced to close. [ii-iv]

After the official closing of the school, Beach Institute remained under ownership of the AMA through the First Congregational Church of Savannah. It rented the basement of the building to the Savannah Boy’s Club, the first floor to a family as a residence, and the second floor to the city school board. In 1939, the building was sold to the Board of Public Education for $5,000. For the next few decades, it operated as the Harris Street Elementary School (figs. 3-7). After the integration of public schools in 1972, the building was used as the Harris Reading Center and Harris Adult Education Center. In 1988, the building was sold to Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) as part of a four-school package for $500,000. The following year, SCAD donated the building to the King-Tisdell Cottage Foundation, who maintains ownership of the building today. [v-vi]

A black heritage organization headquartered at 514 East Huntingdon Street, the King-Tisdell Cottage Foundation decided to turn the Beach Institute building into a black cultural center. After more than $100,000 in renovations, the building reopened on November 10, 1990. In 1993, the foundation purchased the art collection of folk artist Ulysses Davis (1913-1990). Davis was a Savannah barber who also created an impressive collection of over 300 wood carvings. In 1982, his work was featured in the Corcoran Gallery of Art as part of the show Black Folk Art in America, 1930-1980. Davis aimed to keep his collection intact, and today over 200 of his carvings are part of Beach Institute’s permanent collection. Beach Institute also features temporary exhibitions highlighting black heritage in the South. Thomas H. Hines, member of the board of directors, describes the institute as “a living monument to the past and present but also well into the future.” [vii-ix]

Spanning from Liberty to Gwinnett and Price to E. Broad Streets, the surrounding neighborhood had developed in the 1850s by investors for the Savannah-Albany Railroad seeking to create housing for their workers. Unlike the rest of downtown Savannah, the plan did not include tything lots, trust lots, or central squares. The predominant building type was the double one-story cottage (figs. 8-10). These cottages are not found anywhere else in Historic Savannah. Another building type found in the neighborhood is the corner store, with entrances on the corner angle (figs. 11-12). Overall, it was an integrated neighborhood with a strong German presence and black ownership as early as the 1860s. In the 1980s, the King-Tisdell Cottage Foundation and the Historic Savannah Foundation aimed to resist the gentrification and displacement occurring throughout downtown Savannah as a result of the historic preservation movement. Together they established the “Live in a Landmark” and “Fee and Fine Forgiveness” programs, helping the area to remain mixed and affordable. The effort was successful, and today is considered a model for conscious historic preservation planning throughout the nation. Because of these initiatives, the established Beach Institute Historic Neighborhood remains the oldest surviving African American neighborhood in Savannah. [x-xi]


[i] “Twentieth Annual Report of the American Missionary Association, 1866,” “Beach Institute,” vertical file.

[ii] “Beach Institute, Savannah, GA: Timeline,” Beach Institute vertical file.

[iii] “Notes to the American Missionary,” Beach Institute vertical file.

[iv] “Twentieth Annual Report of the American Missionary Association, 1866.”

[v] “Beach Institute, Savannah, GA: Timeline.”

[vi] “Overview of Black Education in Savannah,” Beach Institute vertical file.

[vii] Jay Jones, “Foundation Opens New Cultural Center: Beach Institute, Where Ex-slaves Were Once Educated, Is Now Home to Black Heritage Museum,” Savannah Morning News, Nov 11, 1990, 1C.

[viii] “”Georgia’s 260th Anniversary,” Georgia Week, February 12, 1993,” “Ulysses Davis,” vertical file.

[ix] Melissa Alexander, “Committee Honors Ulysses Davis as Great Georgian,” Savannah Morning News, February 1, 1993.

[x] “Beach Institute, Savannah, GA: Timeline.”

[xi] Robert Hodder, “Savannah’s Changing Past: Historic Preservation Planning and the Social Construction of a Historic Landscape, 1955 to 1985,” Planning the Twentieth Century American City, ed. Mary Corbin Sies and Christopher Silver (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press), 361-383.

1. Photograph of Harris Street, Savannah, Ga., 1930s. From the Foltz Photography Studio (Savannah, Ga.), photographs, 1899-1960 Collection, MS 1360.

2. Beach Institute, 2014. Courtesy of Melina Gooray.

3. Photograph of Harris Street School, 1946. From the Foltz Photography Studio (Savannah, Ga.), photographs, 1899-1960 Collection, MS 1360. 

4. Photograph of Harris Street School, 1946. From the Foltz Photography Studio (Savannah, Ga.), photographs, 1899-1960 Collection, MS 1360.

5. Photograph of Harris Street School Lunchroom, 1948. From the Foltz Photography Studio (Savannah, Ga.), photographs, 1899-1960 Collection, MS 1360.

6. Photograph of Harris Street School, 1952. From the Foltz Photography Studio (Savannah, Ga.), photographs, 1899-1960 Collection, MS 1360.

7. Photograph of Harris Street School, 1952. From the Foltz Photography Studio (Savannah, Ga.), photographs, 1899-1960 Collection, MS 1360.

8. Photograph of 506-508 East Jones Street, Savannah, Ga., 1934. From the Foltz Photography Studio (Savannah, Ga.), photographs, 1899-1960 Collection, MS 1360. http://georgiahistory.pastperfect-online.com/37659images/006/1360120816.JPG

9. Double One-Story Cottages on Macon, 2014. Courtesy of Melina Gooray.

10. Double One-Story Cottage Harris Street, 2014. Courtesy of Melina Gooray.

11. Photograph of Hutcheson’s Food Store at 422 Gwinnett Street, 1948. From the Foltz Photography Studio (Savannah, Ga.), photographs, 1899-1960 Collection, MS 1360.

12. Corner Store Price Street, 2014. Courtesy of Melina Gooray.


Further Reading

Jay Jones, “Foundation Opens New Cultural Center: Beach Institute, Where Ex-slaves Were Once Educated, Is Now Home to Black Heritage Museum.” Savannah Morning News, Nov 11, 1990, 1C.

Beach Institute Neighborhood vertical file.

Beach Institute vertical file.