Segregation in Savannah


Trevor Johnston

Savannah, at its heart, is a city of leisure. Plans for business buildings and parking garages are often ignored for their interference with the city’s ambiance and scenery. Great brick buildings, some frighteningly old, stand the test of time and offer tourists a glimpse into a vision of the Old South. When one walks upon the brick roadway of River Street, the scent of fresh pralines fills the air, accompanying the sounds of local musicians playing trumpets and strumming guitars on the riverfront. If one were to head up to Bay Street they would hear the hustle and bustle of traffic as the clock atop city hall chimes to the heat of the late afternoon. Over at Congress and Broughton, art students and visitors browse the stores and cafés for a snack. Savannah is a city slow to stir, and even slower to change. Natives talk fondly of older days where times were simpler and when business was better. However, for the most part, the memories of those who have always lived here are preserved like that of the monuments and landmarks that dot the city. It may then surprise those not accustomed to the mannerisms of the locals that some memories of Savannah are better left forgotten.

It is hard to imagine it when one roams the streets, but Savannah, like the cities of Charleston and New Orleans with which it shares its ambiance, was once a member of that old way of thinking. It was not too long ago, that there had been a time when a man or woman, for the color of their skin, was barred from the restaurants and music halls that so many tourists crowd today. Jim Crow’s grasp on the Deep South was tight, and Savannah, with its leisurely ways, was not immune to its effects.  Segregation in Savannah was an integral part to how the city functioned, and has defined and molded the mannerisms of the locals that can still be seen today. When, in the 1960’s, the fight for Civil Rights roared around the nation, Savannah remained mostly quiet and content. Although there were cases of protest and community friction, violence was simply an uncommon aspect of the movement within Savannah.[1] Blacks and whites got along well enough simply because they never had much reason to confront one another over public or private grievances. For example, one resident recalled what would happen when a black citizen and a white citizen would pass each other on the sidewalks of Savannah. It was an ingrained practice that blacks were to walk closest to the street, so that white commuters would be able to walk in the shade of the awnings from stores. Despite the practice being clearly discriminatory, it was something that was understood and followed.[2]

So it was in this way Savannah came to be as it is today; black citizens and white citizens shared some similar streets, but more often than not remained separate from one another. It was in this separation of race that we see the effects of diversity, or lack thereof, in the neighborhoods of Savannah today. Forsyth Park is a large park that has acted as a barrier between the developments in both black and white neighborhoods in the city. If one were to look at a map for detailing the diversity of neighborhoods around Forsyth Park, one would easily see the differences laid out before them. On the East side of Forsyth, neighborhoods were populated by whites, who used the services and stores in that area to grow and prosper into a respectable community. On the West side of Forsyth, blacks populated the neighborhoods and prospered just as well. As both neighborhoods grew, the need to expand came into issue. This is where the effect we know today as “white flight” occurs.  Across the country, “white flight” had been driving white citizens further out of the city centers and into suburban areas, due to black citizens expanding into neighborhoods in the city’s center.[3] However, this effect did not occur as the communities around Forsyth expanded. Bull Street is a road that, if it were to be connected, would run right through the heart of Forsyth Park. It was because Bull Street was located where it is, that black and white communities simply expanded to the North and South, using Bull Street as a dividing line, so as not to disturb the status quo. Separate but equal was evident nowhere else as it was in the division of Bull Street.[4]

It was not only the neighborhoods of Savannah that were segregated; Jim Crow was very specific in detailing the rules and regulations for what black citizens could and could not do. In Savannah, Jim Crow forced its hand on the issue of public spaces, more specifically schools, hospitals, and restaurants. In the era of Reconstruction and Jim Crow, education was a luxury that not many black citizens of Savannah were able to afford to use. Some attempts were made to change this, such as the creation of Alfred E. Beach High School. The high school was established by the Freedmen’s Bureau as an attempt to assimilate freed black citizens of Savannah into white society through a formal education. The school had been successful in its mission, and is still in operation today.[5] Medical emergencies were a great issue for black citizens of Savannah, who more often than not were refused from most hospitals due to their race. That would change upon the arrival of two black physicians in Savannah; Cornelius and Alice McKane. During their initial stay in Savannah, the two physicians established the McKane Training School for Nurses. After a brief visit to Liberia, the duo arrived back in the city and founded the first hospital to cater to African-American citizens of the city; the McKane Hospital. This hospital is important not only as the first hospital to accept black patients, but it is also notable for accepting white patients as well. The hospital would later be named Charity Hospital. The building still sits in midtown Savannah today.[6]

Today, Savannah is famous for the many green squares that plot out the grid of the city, giving each neighborhood an individual flavor. Visitors can explore the parks upon their arrival to the city, where great statues and monuments are erected within the boundaries of the squares, honoring great leaders and fallen heroes integral to the identity and preservation of the city of Savannah. The liberty for black citizens of Savannah to use these squares is a relatively recent one. The squares of Savannah were not always as serene and beautiful as they are today. Many of the greens had become overgrown and unkempt, and in the era of segregation in Savannah, black citizens were not permitted to enter the squares. In fact, it would take many more years until after segregation was outlawed by the United States government for Savannah to even allow blacks into the squares at all. A local scholar even described a scene that they witnessed in the early 1990’s. A black couple was having a calm argument on one of the many benches in the squares, when a police officer on patrol drove his squad car onto the sidewalk of the square, where he approached the couple and had them detained.[7] This is only one example of a city that has always been slow to change.

Savannah’s other great attraction is the nearby community of Tybee Beach. Today, Tybee Beach is a tourist mecca, where crowds gather to relax on the sand and swim in the waves. However, Tybee Beach was once only the playground for Savannah’s white citizens. During an interview with a black citizen of Savannah who had been alive during the era of segregation in the city said that, “Tybee Beach was a place you did not go.”[8] If you went to Tybee Beach, you faced the strong possibility of being arrested. Due to this restriction from visiting the beach, most black citizens had little opportunity to swim. If a black citizens was lucky enough to find a place to swim, it would most likely be either in a pool in which strong rules and restrictions were imposed on what they could or could not do, or through small watering holes.[9] The effects of this restriction are seen very clearly today, as the demographics are made up almost entirely of white citizens. As of 2010, Tybee Island is 93.5% white, and only 3.1% black in population. However, the 2010 population of Savannah is 55.04% black and only 38.03% white.[10]

Of course there used to be more white citizens within the city of Savannah, but they were not driven out in the mid-twentieth century, when war-time efforts brought a boom of rural blacks into the city’s ports. The great influx of workers was at first only a small concern to white citizens, believing they would return to the rural counties after the war had ended. At the conclusion of the war, many black citizens made it their goal to stay in Savannah. White citizens, now alarmed by the great influx of black citizens into the city, began to implement the process we know as “white flight.” While the Historic District of Savannah remains today mostly white in population, the rest of the city began to slowly integrate, allowing more and more black citizens to buy homes in white neighborhoods.[11]

This influx began to drive more and more whites out of the central neighborhoods, at first into surrounding communities like Whitemarsh, Skidaway and Georgetown. When these communities began to see the integration of black citizens, white citizens of Savannah abandoned the city altogether and headed for the surrounding counties. Bryan and Effingham counties saw a population and housing boom in the mid to late twentieth centuries, where communities like Richmond Hill, Rincon, and Hinesville quickly grew in both population and acreage. When looking at a demographic map of Savannah today, most of the city is somewhat integrated. In historically black neighborhoods you will see mostly black citizens, with some white citizens as well. In historically white neighborhoods you see mostly whites, while some black citizens. The last bastion of an almost wholly white population lies in the immediate Historic District of Savannah, which includes River Street, Bay Street, Congress and Broughton. For the most part, however, the city that has been so slow to change is fully in the process of integration, in a large community where, despite some cultural differences, blacks and whites get along easily.[12]

Far from the Historic District of Savannah lies the site that only memories can describe. There are a few names for what once had sat on the land surrounding Montgomery Cross Road; the Brown Farm, the Brown Work Camp, The Brown Complex. Many local historians debate on where the farm actually existed, as there is currently no standing evidence to show where it had actually been located. Most agree however, that the farm was located somewhere in the same rough square mile. Some believe that when the institution was destroyed that the city dug up the ground where it sat, later filling it with water to become Lake Mayer. Some believe the institution actually sat in the new heavily forested area Northwest of Lake Mayer. Others think it once sat next to the golf course at Bacon Park.[13] Institution is a nicer name for what it was actually described to be. For the purpose of this paper, it will be regarded as the Brown Farm, which is what most citizens of the city use to regard the site. The Brown Farm was a Jim Crow era camp in which blacks were worked and labored in poor conditions. It was not a place where felons were sent, but rather black citizens who had committed misdemeanors and infractions. Accounts by black and white citizens who lived around the Brown Farm during its years of operation describe it as a horrible place where no person should be sent. The Brown Farm no longer exists; destroyed by the city long before the age of tourism in the city. No official pictures were taken of the farm, being what it was. All evidence of its existence has been erased, save the memories of Savannah’s oldest citizens, who had been around when the farm was still active.

Details are scarce, but there is enough to understand the legacy of the farm. To many citizens, it is one of the memories that are better left unsaid. The legacy of the Brown Farm contradicts the leisurely and comforting ambiance of the city, and would have done nothing but tarnish the city’s image for tourists. It is however, a memory which must be told, for Savannah is also a city with a passion for history and preservation. To acquire a greater understanding of the city of Savannah, a visitor should be given the full history of a town. Memories of splendor and grandeur are lovely to hear, but it is equally important to talk about the memories of hardship and ignorance. History is a study of learning, of observing and adapting, and also one of reflection. All history is important, and Savannah is a city that understands this, but to fully know the history of this city you must talk to those who know the things other don’t speak of. Tourists and visitors should seek out the locals, those who can tell the secrets of the city that a tour bus cannot tell you. Visitors should leave the safety and comfort of the traveling trolleys to hear what the city of Savannah really has to say, a voice whose wisdom can only be heard through the citizens who call this city home.

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