The Georgia Infirmary

This Hidden History was created by SCAD student Paige Wildstein as part of her SCAD art history department coursework with guidance from art history professor Holly Goldstein, Ph.D., 2018.

The Georgia Infirmary historical marker was dedicated on June 17, 2008. View The Georgia Infirmary historical marker listing.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

1. Georgia Infirmary. https://georgiahistory.com/marker-monday-the-georgia-infirmary/

2. Courtesy of Paige Wildstein.

3. Courtesy of Paige Wildstein.

The following essay is by SCAD student Paige Wildstein, 2018. 

Georgia Infirmary Historical Marker

Savannah is a historic city that has in many ways remained constant, yet in other aspects has drastically evolved and changed. This project examines the neighborhood surrounding the Georgia Infirmary, located in the mid-town neighborhood of Thomas Square, near the intersection of Bull and 37th Streets. This study traces the changes surrounding the Georgia Infirmary from its founding to the present, and discusses the evolution of the nearby neighborhood. (Fig. 1) The exploration begins in the year 1838, the year that the infirmary moved to this neighborhood.[i]

The Georgia Infirmary and Thomas F. Williams

Originally the Georgia Infirmary was designed for “the relief and protection of aged and afflicted Africans.”[ii] The Georgia government established the institution in 1832, and placed it ten miles south of Savannah. It eventually was moved to the Thomas Square neighborhood in 1838.[iii] Thomas F. Williams was the main influence for the Georgia Infirmary’s establishment. He owned plantations and slaves, and when an overseer beat one of his slaves to death, he decided that Savannah needed a hospital for slaves, as this death would have been prevented with the proper treatment.[iv] One of Thomas Williams’ descendants claims that this effort was a humane one, stating that, “It is not strange in a state where the importation of slaves had been prohibited in its constitution of 1798 that men of Caucasian blood should interest themselves in the relief and protection of aged and afflicted Africans. Georgia pioneered in this humane effort.”[v] However, it is important to understand the economic benefit for keeping slaves alive, and this effort was for monetary reasons, not humanistic concerns. It is important to remember the benefits of an infirmary for slaves in the eyes of a slave owner. In fact, William refused to attend the church that the overseer, Aaron Shave, attended after Shave was not punished for his actions.[vi]

The Georgia Infirmary in Thomas Square

The Thomas Square Neighborhood in 1838 was originally located outside of historic downtown Savannah, a mile away.[vii] The patients were predominantly black slaves. This location was not part of the original squares in Oglethorpe’s plan but was rather a location fully developed by the time of the Victorian Era. This development occurred due to the invention of the streetcar.[viii] It became a popular location for working-class citizens of Savannah to move from Savannah’s crowded urban area to these nearby suburbs.[ix] By the time of the invention of the automobile, upper class citizens who lived in the area could move even farther south of the area of the Victorian District. This phenomenon resulted in a higher concentration of lower-income households to remain within the area, including Thomas Square.[x] By the late 1960s, the neighborhood was referred to as the “dirty thirties,” associated with the low-income inhabitants in the streets numbered in the 30s.[xi] These low-income inhabitants were mostly descendants of former slaves.[xii] Therefore, it is unlikely that the patients of the infirmary changed until later years due to the establishment of Jim Crow laws preventing the integration of white and black people. The infirmary most likely remained a center for black patients, despite the use of white doctors.

Thomas Square and the Starland District

By 2010, the Thomas Square neighborhood became known as the “Starland District,” named after the nearby Starland Dairy. With the increase of property values in downtown Savannah in the late 20th Century, more people began moving to midtown and Thomas Square.[xiii] With the establishment of SCAD in 1978 and other neighborhood gentrification projects,[xiv] the inhabitants of the Thomas Square area were gradually changing. Integration caused the movement of white people to the area by the late 1960s, and therefore it is not surprising that the infirmary changed from a place to treat only African Americans to a “stroke rehabilitation center” that now treats patients of all races.

The area of the Thomas Square neighborhood continues to change today. It has moved from forest to new development to low-income housing to housing for the upper-middle class and SCAD student classrooms. As a student at the Savannah College of Art and Design, this particular neighborhood’s changes have impacted my daily life. I attend classes in this area at SCAD’s Arnold Hall, and once lived in the Montgomery Hall dormitory nearby. Therefore, I am contributing to this neighborhood’s change as it evolves every day.  Included is artwork I created using my skills as a SCAD Fibers major, inspired by the colors and methods of the slaves’ Gullah Geechee culture, along with an art project I created with local fourth grade students reflecting on the site’s changing meaning and history (Figures 2 and 3).

[i]“Marker Monday: The Georgia Infirmary” Georgiahistory.com, Last accessed May 28, 2018, https://georgiahistory.com/ghmi_marker_updated/the-georgia-infirmary/.

[ii] Clarence Augustus Williams, Letter to Friends of the Library and Guests, January 19, 1971. Copyright Savannah Public Library.

[iii] “Marker Monday: The Georgia Infirmary.”

[iv] Clarence Augustus Williams.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] “Georgia Infirmary (1832-)” “Blackpast.org,” Accessed May 28, 2018, http://www.blackpast.org/aah/georgia-infirmary-1832.

[viii] Beth Lattimore Reiter and Leopold Adler. “Restoration of Savannah’s Victorian District,” The Georgia Historical Quarterly 63, no. 1 (1979): 166. http://0-www.jstor.org.library.scad.edu/stable/40580096.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Author Interview: Clinton Edminster, owner of Starlandia, in discussion with the author, May 2018.

[xii]Beth Lattimore Reiter and Leopold Adler.

[xiii]  Clinton Edminster interview.

[xiv]  Ibid.

Reiter, Beth Lattimore, and Leopold Adler. “Restoration of Savannah’s Victorian District.” The Georgia Historical Quarterly63, no. 1 (1979): 164-72. http://0-www.jstor.org.library.scad.edu/stable/40580096.

Blackpast.org. http://www.blackpast.org/aah/georgia-infirmary-1832.

Clarence Augustus Williams, Letter to Friends of the Library and Guests, January 19, 2017. Copyright Savannah Public Library.

“Marker Monday: The Georgia Infirmary” Georgiahistory.com. https://georgiahistory.com/ghmi_marker_updated/the-georgia-infirmary/.

Harris, Leslie M. and Berry, Daina Ramey. Slavery and Freedom in Savannah. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2014.

“Gentrification: Part Two (Making the Jump),” Connect Savannah, Connectsavannah.com. http://www.connectsavannah.com/savannah/gentrification-part-two-making-the-jump/Content?oid=6624873

Griffin, J. David. “Benevolence and Malevolence in Confederate Savannah.” The Georgia Historical Quarterly 49, no. 4 (1965): 347-68. http://0-www.jstor.org.library.scad.edu/stable/40578522.