Savannah Waterfront

The Savannah Waterfront historical marker was dedicated on February 12, 2001. View the Savannah Waterfront historical marker listing.


 Historical Background

Created by SCAD student Ava Pandiani as part of her SCAD art history department coursework with guidance from art history professor Holly Goldstein, Ph.D., 2015.

Savannah’s Waterfront has been integral to the social and economic development of the city (Figure 1). Though countless ships and tourists have docked and walked along River Street, there is one man who was a leader on the Waterfront, and was a living metaphor for the city’s progress. Five feet two inches tall, with a low resonant voice, Captain Frank W. Spencer was a fascinating combination of tugboat captain and philanthropist (Figure 2). [i] Though he is not well-known, Frank W. Spencer was an important person in Savannah’s history because of his improvements and management of the Savannah River and Port, his community leadership, and most notably his Civil Rights activism.

Spencer was born in 1882 and raised in Savannah.  He was the son of Savannah’s port master pilot, a title that indicates the highest authority for navigating vessels in the harbor. [ii] After studying navigation and seamanship at New York Nautical College, Spencer had a notable career at sea. Among his exploits, he once transported soldiers to Cuba on a tugboat during the Spanish-American war. [iii] In his autobiographical monograph, The Waterfront, Spencer describes one particularly rough night off the coast of Cape Horn that formed his belief in human equality. A German boat was sinking and had called for rescue. In a chaotic moment of character, Spencer describes his epiphany:

There were 17 different races, religions, and nationalities represented in the crew. Everyman on board volunteered to make the rescue in small boats… It was at that moment, that I realized that a man’s color or country, or what he believes does not prove his courage and ability. I found out then that it is the man himself who counts. [iv]

Eventually, Captain Spencer returned to Savannah and followed his father’s footsteps to became the Savannah port master pilot from 1917-1947 (Figure 3). He was also appointed general manager and treasurer of The Atlantic Towing Company in 1920. [v] He is noted for his management of the river, including using I-beams for cost effective spot dredging and opening up a new channel in the upper part of the river to allow access further inland for larger ships. This was particularly beneficial for the Savannah Sugar Refinery Company, because ships could then sail all the way up the river into Port Wentworth. [vi] Spencer created a hand-traced map in 1954 that lovingly illustrates the Savannah River and its tributaries (Figure 4).

After his successful career at sea, Spencer was so highly regarded in the community that he was asked to serve on various boards and in leadership roles. As a representation, he was the three time head of the Chatham Area Boy Scout Council, he was a board member of the Greenbriar Children’s Center and the West Broad Street YMCA, and most notably he served for eighteen years on the Education Board. He also established a local chapter of “Sea Scouts,” a special section of the boy scouts organization that focuses on sailing and boat navigation (Figure 5).

Though he had two sons (Figure 6) and three daughters by his first wife, Otelia, Spencer was a seemingly unlikely advocate for children. In her 1979 profile of Spencer, journalist Harriet Killorin’s description was less than endearing, “He was not a lovable man children did not clamber onto his lap. But much of his concern was for the welfare of children.” [vii] It seems that it was his second wife, Lillian, who was the driving force that encouraged his activism. She was a social worker and an instrumental member of the local chapter of the League of Women Voters. [viii]

Frank and Lillian Spencer were both very politically active and were most passionate about the integration of schools. This is well documented in correspondence with Civil Rights and NAACP leaders such as Dr. Lillian Smith, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Judge J. Waites Waring, and W.W. Law. In 1963, Spencer demanded change in public opinion and behavior with the publication of his article “The White Problem” in Savannah Morning News. According to Dr. Robert Strozier, a longtime fellow education board member and friend of Captain Spencer’s, times were turbulent and threats of violence were common. In Spencer’s archives, there is a venomous hate letter directed at him and Dr. Lillian Smith- an unfortunate reminder of the turbulence and hate during that era.

Captain Frank W. Spencer’s legacy is one of peace and prosperity. In harmony with two of his greatest passions, equal education and the river, two major sites in Savannah are named for him. There is the Frank W. Spencer Elementary School (Figure 7), dedicated in 1955, which was originally opened as a school for African-American children, and the Frank W. Spencer Boat Ramp Park for fishing and recreation (Figure 8), located on highway 80 between downtown Savannah and Tybee Island. [ix] He is also one of only a few white social equality supporters mentioned in a video and exhibit at The Ralph Gilbert Mark Civil Rights Museum in Savannah.

Forging the unknown tides of the sea and of social change, Captain Spencer and his wife Lillian dedicated themselves to bettering the lives of others. Frank Spencer’s contributions to the betterment of the Savannah river and ports earn him a place in history, but his efforts on behalf of children and African-American communities extends his impact far beyond the city limits and his own lifetime. His philosophy is best summarized in one of his own poems, titled “The Savannah.”

Great River blest with wondrous power,

Instill in me thy surging strength;

That I may strive each passing hour,

For those who need me in this life.

Thy gentle murmur, thy ceaseless flow,

Bring joy to me afloat, ashore;

Great river, nature’s gift to man;

Give me grace to understand. [x]


[i] Robert, Strozier. Interview by Beverley Duncan-Edleman, Caroline Hopkinson, and the Author.  Armstrong Atlantic State University, Lane Library. May 4, 2015.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Frank W. Spencer, The Waterfront Savannah, Georgia: 1966. Georgia Historical Society Archives MS 1928 and “Frank W. and Lillian Spencer Collection, 1921-1987,” Armstrong Atlantic State University Lane Library Special Collections.

[v] “Capt. Spencer Started Career at Sea Fifty Years Ago This Week” The Savannah Tribune, March 31, 1949. Georgia Historical Society Archives MS 1928.

[vi] “Spencer to Resign Atlantic Towing Post.” Savannah Morning News, Evening Press, December 10, 1967, Section C. Georgia Historical Society Archives MS 1928.

[vii] Harriet Killorin, “His Time Has Come.” Georgia Gazette and Journal Record, August 6, 1979, “A Second Opinion” Section, “Frank W. and Lillian Spencer Collection, 1921-1987,” Armstrong Atlantic State University Lane Library Special Collections.

[viii] Robert, Strozier, Interview.

[ix] “New Negro School is Dedicated.” Savannah Evening Press, November 21, 1955, “Frank W. and Lillian Spencer Collection, 1921-1987,” Armstrong Atlantic State University Lane Library Special Collections.

[x] This poem was written by Frank W. Spencer, details of publication or any further information are unknown. A small copy of this poem with the author listed as Frank Spencer was found in a folder with various poems recited at his funeral service. The file is part of the Frank W. and Lillian Spencer Collection, 1921-1987 in the Lane Library Special Collections, Armstrong Atlantic State University, Savannah, GA.

Figure 1. The Waterfront Historic Marker and Tourists on River Street, 2015. Courtesy of Ava Pandiani.

Figure 2. Frank And Lillian Spencer, date and creator unknown. Image Courtesy of Lane Library Special Collections, Armstrong Atlantic State University, Folder 80.

Figure 3. Savannah River as Viewed from City Hall, circa 1915, possibly by William Henry Jackson. Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-D401-72464.

Figure 4. Tracing Map of the Savannah River by Captain Frank W. Spencer, 1952, MS1361MP608, Map No. 95016403. Image Courtesy of Georgia Historical Society.

Figure 5. Sea Scouts on Coast Guard Ship “Yamacraw,” 1933. Foltz Photography Studio, 1360-22-16-03. Courtesy of Georgia Historical Society.

Figure 6. Photograph of Frank W. Spencer’s twin sons by his first wife, Otelia, inscribed “Copied for Mrs. Frank Spencer,” Foltz Photography Studio, 1360-24-16-07. Courtesy of Georgia Historical Society.

Figure 7. Frank W. Spencer Elementary School, 2015. Courtesy of Ava Pandiani.

Figure 8. Frank W. Spencer Boat Ramp Park, 2015. Courtesy of Ava Pandiani.


Further Reading

“Capt. Spencer Started Career at Sea Fifty Years Ago This Week” The Savannah Tribune, March 31, 1949. Georgia Historical Society Archives MS 1928.

Killorin, Harriet. “His Time Has Come” Georgia Gazette and Journal Record, August 6, 1979, “A Second Opinion” Section, “Frank W. and Lillian Spencer Collection, 1921-1987,” Armstrong Atlantic State University Lane Library Special Collections.

Law, W.W., Interview by Clifford Kuhn & Timothy Crimmins, “Series E. Black Involvement in Politics, Georgia Government Documentation Project” Special Collections and Archives, Georgia State University Library, Atlanta. November 15-16 1990. Transcript available: http://digitalcollections.library.gsu.edu/cdm/ref/collection/ggdp/id/4299, (pages 136-157).

“New Negro School is Dedicated” Savannah Evening Press, November 21, 1955, “Frank W. and Lillian Spencer Collection, 1921-1987,” Armstrong Atlantic State University Lane Library Special Collections.

Robert, Strozier. Interview by Beverley Duncan-Edleman, Caroline Hopkinson, and the Author.  Armstrong Atlantic State University, Lane Library. May 4, 2015.

Spencer, Frank W. Savannah: The River and The Port. 1900-1962. (Savannah, GA: 1962). Georgia Historical Society Archives MS 1928 and “Frank W. and Lillian Spencer Collection, 1921-1987,” Armstrong Atlantic State University Lane Library Special Collections.

The Waterfront. (Savannah, GA: 1966). Georgia Historical Society Archives MS 1928 and “Frank W. and Lillian Spencer Collection, 1921-1987,” Armstrong Atlantic State University Lane Library Special Collections.

“The White Problem” Savannah Morning News, October 17, 1963. “Frank W. and Lillian Spencer Collection, 1921-1987,” Armstrong Atlantic State University Lane Library Special Collections.

“Spencer to Resign Atlantic Towing Post” Savannah Morning News, Evening Press, December 10, 1967, Section C. Georgia Historical Society Archives MS 1928.

Swanson, Yon. “Ships in Savannah” Savannah Morning News, Evening Press, April 6, 1969, Magazine Section.