Savannah High School
The Savannah High School historical marker was dedicated on June 2, 2002. View the Savannah High School historical marker listing.
Created by SCAD student Elizabeth Cara as part of her SCAD art history department coursework, with guidance from art history professor Holly Goldstein, Ph.D., 2014.
Following the palmetto-lined walkway down Atlantic Avenue in Midtown Savannah towards Washington Avenue, the monumental brick facade of the Savannah Arts Academy, formerly known as Savannah High School, becomes visible. The 1930s structure was an ambitious project of its time. Before the Savannah-Chatham school board adopted the 40-acre lot, plans for a Spanish-revival luxury hotel were proposed. The “Georgia Hotel” was never completed past a basement foundation and the first floor.[i] Soon, the construction for the high school became the largest project in the state with 1.5 million bricks and approximately 13,000 square yards of blackboard.[ii] The Greek revival structure stands with three stories, large interior-illuminating windows across the facade, and an ionic order portico overarching the front steps leading up to three entrance doorways. Invisible to contemporary eyes, the stone steps that lead art students to class today are the same stone steps twelve brave African American students ascended to become the first to integrate Savannah-Chatham public schools in 1963. (Figure 3)
Civil Rights Movement in Savannah
In context with the controversy of integration in Savannah’s public schools, the battle for equality began many years before. The 1896 court ruling in the Plessy vs. Ferguson case called for separate but equal facilities for those of a different race. At the time, the Supreme Court believed that it did not interfere with the 14th amendment of the US Constitution. However, by the 1950s Americans were becoming fed up with inequality, especially in public schools. The Brown vs. Board of Education trial of 1954 declared separation in schools as inherently unequal. In Savannah, the parents of student Ralph Stell and 35 others sued the Board of Education for running a “dual system” in the Stell vs. Savannah-Chatham County Board of Public Education trial in January of 1962.[iii] In the following summer of 1963, twelve African American students registered at the previously all-white Savannah High. One month later, on September 3, 1963, the first court order for integration in classrooms was officially in effect.[iv]
The man on the forefront of the battle for equality in the public school system was W. W. Law. Starting the position at age 26, Law was the president of the Savannah branch of the NAACP from 1950 until 1976. In an interview, Vaughnette Goode-Walker, a Savannah resident, scholar, and curator for the King-Tisdale Cottage, spoke highly of Law’s active participation to facilitate integration. In her own words, “It’s fascinating history, about how he thought education was important. And that was part of the reason, I think, that he had to go there.”[v] W. W. Law went to the schools to march alongside students, (Figure 5) and to the homes of potential candidates to speak personally to the families concerning the initiative.
The twelve students to integrate Savannah High were John Alexander, Eddie Banner, John Briggs, Ulysses Bryant Jr., Frankie Coleman, Geraldine Loadholt, Georgia Ann Lowman, Lillie Meyers, Robert Edward “Robbie” Robinson, Florence Russell, Robert Stephenson, and Anstine Thomson.[vi] A total of 21 students were hand-chosen by W. W. Law but only 19 proceeded. Seven students, including attorney Sage Brown, and Civil Rights activist and YMCA Director George Shinhoster, were among the first students to integrate Groves High on Chatham county’s west side (Figure 6). Ulysses Bryant Jr. recalled in an interview with the Savannah Morning News memories of being tripped in the hallways of Savannah High, having his books knocked from his arms, his food being spat in, and physical abuse including a blow to the back of his head with a wooden plank.[vii] Brown’s experience was emotionally and physically painful. “Groves was a very hostile environment. The administration, as well as the students, were against us. Anybody who told you they were not afraid is a liar” and Brown was not shy to share that authorities turned their backs as the white student body physically jumped the black students.[viii] Only intervention by black residents on nearby Wheat Hill Road saved them. It was unanimous among the students that the experience was difficult. But no one regrets their decision to participate.
The Civil Rights Museum on Martin Luther King Boulevard currently exhibits a propaganda poster from the 1960s hoping to persuade parents to send their children to an integrated school. Among the many reasons listed were: “It is impossible to educate youth for an integrated society in segregated schools” and “School is a starting point for eliminating prejudice and promoting respect and confidence in each other.”[ix] To instill positivity and hope in those considering attendance at an integrated school was a crucial attitude for Civil Rights activists. But integration in the public schools was easier said than done.
In the school year of 1964-65, only 604 of 2,951 school districts in eleven southern states had even begun the process of desegregation. The south was practicing what came to be known as “ingenious procrastination” to desegregate its schools.[x] It took almost a decade for the judicial system to mediate and revisit the issue of segregation. A court order from 1971 in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Georgia Savannah Division revises the 60% white 40% black ratio to be reinforced by “substantial modification in attendance zones by busing black students from non-contiguous zones to predominately white schools” and gerrymandering or manipulating boundary lines.[xi]
Surprisingly, Jim Crow laws were still legal in Savannah legislation until 2005. Procrastination to abolish the dated laws implementing segregation was largely due to delays for co-sponsors for the bill specifically by Savannah Republican Stevens. The bill was backed by top GOP leaders, and in March of 2005 the Jim Crow laws were shot down by a unanimous vote.[xii]
To this day there is speculation of Savannah schools segregating the student body again. It was common to hear of segregated proms post-integration, especially in Johnson and Taylor counties which are among the last to cling to the practice.[xiii] Even as recent as 2013, Wilcox County High School still debated for an integrated prom.[xiv] Several public schools across Georgia still face the reality of segregation due to an adoption of the School Zone Plan. In 1971, the NAACP executive committee went on record in support of the school redistricting plan proposed by the board of education.[xv] But despite the approach to fairly distribute students in the public schools, Dr. F. Erik Brooks, a professor at Georgia Southern University made a fact-of-the-matter reminder: “Most neighborhoods are segregated now, still, and most school districts have a neighborhood school policy. Desegregation really hasn’t done much.”[xvi]
Savannah Arts Academy
The site formally known as Savannah Public High School is now Savannah Arts Academy. The Academy for talented and artistic students is different from Savannah High, but the highly selective admissions process is not. The Academy’s admittance is based on merit, auditions, and the lottery system. The application process alone entails documented proof of above-average test scores, submission of portfolios, and an extensive audition process. The Savannah Arts Academy is not open to all inquiring students from Chatham County, however, the Academy does not discriminate during their enrollment process based on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or economic backgrounds. Much of the school functions in similar classrooms as it would have in the 1930s through the 1990s. The original band room is still used as a practice space, and the balcony seats in the auditorium are vintage 1970s furniture. Much of the school has been restored, but the historical preservation initiative, as told by theater faculty Ms. Kizer, was important to the academy during restoration in the 1990s.
[i] “History of Chatham Crescent,” Ardsley Living, Savannah, GA: N2 Publishing, April, 2015, pp. 24-25.
[ii] Polly Powers Stramm, Savannah’s Historic Neighborhoods: Ardsley Park, Chatham Crescent, Ardmore Charleston, SC: Arcadia, 2001, 95.
[iii] “Unfinished Journey to Desegregation.” May 16, 2004. Georgia Historical Society Vertical Stacks: Integration.
[v] Vaughnette Goode-Walker, Interview with the author, May 15, 2015.
[vi] “Unfinished Journey to Desegregation.”
[vii] Jan Skutch, “1963, Desegregation Changed the Lives of 19 Savannah Teens, Society.” Savannah Morning News. August 18, 2013.
[ix] Exhibition poster in Civil Rights Museum on Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd in Savannah, GA.
[x] Ralph Nichols, “A Savannah Trailblazer,” Savannah Morning News, February 26, 2012. Georgia Historical Society Vertical File: Integration.
[xi] “Court Order Civil Action No. 1316,” United States District Court for the Southern District of Georgia Savannah Division, May 26, 1971. Georgia Historical Society Vertical Files: Integration.
[xii] Larry Peterson, “Stephens Will Not Co-Sponsor Bill to Repeal ‘Jim Crow’ Laws,” Savannah Morning News, January 29, 2005. Georgia Historical Society Vertical Files: Segregation.
[xiii] “Whites-Only Prom held in second Georgia County” Savannah Morning News, May 12, 2003. Georgia Historical Society Vertical Files: Segregation.
[xiv] Robbie Brown, “A Racial Divide Closes as Students Step Up” New York Times, April 26, 2013.
[xv] “NAACP Supports School Zone Plan” Final Judgment Reserved Press, June 3, 1971. Georgia Historical Society Vertical Files: Integration.
[xvi] “Many Worry That Schools are Resegregating,” Savannah Morning News, May 17, 2004. Georgia Historical Society Vertical Files: Integration.
Figure 1. Savannah High School. Foltz Photography Studio, 1360-03-22-02. Courtesy of Georgia Historical Society.
Figure 2. Aerial photograph of proposed site for the Georgia Hotel in the Chatham Crescent neighborhood. Courtesy of Ardsley Living magazine.
Figure 3. Students Lillian Meyers, Ulysses Bryant Jr., John Briggs, Georgia Lowman, Anistine Thompson and John Alexander arriving at Savannah High School on Registration day. Courtesy Savannah Morning News.
Figure 4. Students arriving at Savannah High. Courtesy Savannah Morning News.
Figure 5. W. W. Law protesting outside of Savannah High. Courtesy Savannah Morning News.
Figure 6. Sage Brown and George Shinhoster at Groves. Courtesy Savannah Morning News.
Figure 7. Contemporary image of historical marker, 2015. Courtesy of Elizabeth Cara.
Figure 8. Savannah Arts Academy facade, 2015. Courtesy of Elizabeth Cara.
Figure 9. Savannah Arts Academy hallway, 2015. Courtesy of Elizabeth Cara.
Figure 10. Library, 2015. Courtesy of Elizabeth Cara.
Figure 11. Cafeteria, 2015. Courtesy of Elizabeth Cara.
Figure 12. Orchestra Room, 2015. Courtesy of Elizabeth Cara.
Figure 13. Original band storage room, 2015. Courtesy of Elizabeth Cara.
Figure 14. Dance practice space, 2015. Courtesy of Elizabeth Cara.
Figure 15. Art room, 2015. Courtesy of Elizabeth Cara.
Figure 16. Original 1970s wooden theater chairs in balcony of theater, 2015. Courtesy of Elizabeth Cara.
Brown, Robbie. “A Racial Divide Closes as Students Step Up” New York Times, April 26, 2013.
Stramm, Polly Powers. Savannah’s Historic Neighborhoods: Ardsley Park, Chatham Crescent, Ardmore. (Charleston, SC: Arcadia, 2001).