public archaeology

Savannah Archaeological Alliance

Kiah House

Why Save the Kiah House: Part II

Need more reasons why is the Kiah House important and relevant? Mrs. Kiah created a beautiful, welcoming space for all people during segregation and Jim Crow. Learn more about the Kiah’s “mini-Smithsonian” museum below in Dr. Deborah Johnson-Simon’s guest piece. We want to preserve the Kiah’s legacy and allow the museum’s story to be told, but we need to save the building first. Click here to donate to efforts to save the house.

The Kiah Museum opened November 28, 1959.  The first visitors were the late founder and first president of Carver State Bank and Register of U.S. Treasury, Louis B. Toomer and his wife, Mrs. Janie Toomer. The collection was started in 1936 by Mrs. Kiah assisted by her mother, Dr. Lillie M. Jackson.  Mrs. Kiah redesigned the museum building, which was also their home.  She and her husband were contractors for the renovation project.

The Kiah House and Museum in an undated photograph, courtesy of ADMI.

Materials from at least 12 old Savannah buildings were a part of the building or exhibited.  Hinges on the front door were formerly on the Pape School.  A ceiling plaster medallion in the living room decorated St. John the Divine Cathedral nun’s chapel. Others were in the Odeon and Bijou Theaters; Commercial Bank; Desoto Hotel; Charles Ellis, Eppinger-Dunlap, Sheftall, Leopold Adler, Pink, and Scarborough houses; the old Adler Department Store; and Old City Market.

Among the gifts to the Museum are an African collection of original carved pieces and rare William Johnson paintings given by New York Harmon Foundation. Some of the treasures are the King Louis XVI period chairs from a palace near Naples, Italy, an inlaid mother of pearl secretary desk attributed to the same period, and an original Albrecht Durer wood block print. Durer, who lived from 1471 to 1528, has been considered the master of print makers.

The art world notables also found this museum a destination. Chicago artist and DuSable Museum of African American History and Culture curator Margaret T. Burroughs called Virginia and Calvin good friends. Margaret would visit regularly while working on exhibitions for the National Conference of Artists (NCA). She and Virginia were founding members.  Margaret would also encourage her to become a member of the African American Museums Association, the first professional museum association for blacks working in museum careers. From the Kiah Museum, Virginia would use her platform with NCA to spearhead a Savannah Student Artist NCA statewide scholarship fund and organized international art student exhibits in cooperation with schools in Hawaii and Ghana.  She also organized traveling United Nations Art Shows that continued for many years.

Today, the Friends of the Kiah Museum must ask, “How am I taking care of our world and this legacy left for us?’ Ancestor legacy is now in our care.  Friends found several ways to show appreciation for the legacy of the Kiah Museum. SSU students and others have engaged in cleanup days at the property but were cautioned about trespassing. New strategies involved Elder James Hudson, a local barber, church elder, musician, artist, and former student of Virginia Kiah, who created a portrait of her that accompanied events for 2019. Also in 2019, archaeologist Laura Seifert led a Caring for Community Cultural Heritage Living History Walk through Cuyler-Brownsville. Participants learned about the community archaeology dig on site. The ethnographic fieldwork of SSU students at the Kiah’s home church continues through Caring for Church and Religious Heritage themed services at Ashbury United Methodist Church. Kiah Friends’ president Tina Hicks started the “Kiah Kindness Rocks” where people painted rocks with caring and inspirational messages that are delivered to the grave site and the house.

Original Fact Sheet from the Kiah’s Museum For The Masses 

  • 505 West 36th Street, Savannah, Georgia 31401-Phone (912) 236-8544 Between West Broad and Burroughs Streets
  • Open Tuesday and Thursdays – Hours 11:00 a.m. -5:00 pm – 1st and 3rd weeks of each month except July, August and holidays
  • Admission was free
  • Museum is eclectic. Contents very varied to interest different age levels.  Some of community beautification campaigns have stemmed from museum.
  • Collection started 1939. Includes 18th, 19th, 20th century furniture, china silver, art work of adult and student artists of different races: New York Harmon Foundation Collection of original African art, Sadie Steele Exhibit of some of personal items of Marie Dressler movie actress who co-starred with Wallace Berry during 1930s and early 40s. Among others are 15,000,000 year old fossil, 4,000 year old collection of American Indian artifacts, Howard J. Morrison, Jr. Osteological Exhibit, original block print by world’s greatest block printer-etcher Albrecht Durer. 
  • Exhibit of pre- and Civil War pieces dug up in Savannah, Georgia, and Washington, D.C. areas, sea life washed ashore from Atlantic Ocean, rock collection developed by Savannah elementary, junior, and senior high students; objects from demolished old Savannah buildings, and hobby exhibit-ages 11-83 years. Library is being developed.
  • Headquarters for National Conference of Artists traveling show.  These projects have been spearheaded at the Kiah Museum with student NCA members taking part from at least 20 American states and 12 foreign countries.  Some of the art received in exchange from foreign students and from each other has been matted, acetate covered, and organized at Kiah Museum into traveling shows by the Savannah, Georgia, chapter of the art organization.
    1. International Student Artists Show
    2. African Exhibit-Student work from Malawi School, Ho Ghana, West Africa
    3. American Student Artists Show-colleges and high school in 14 states U.S.A.
    4. Hawaiian Show- schools in Hawaii
  • The Kiah Museum is an educational center for many. Not only Art but other subjects as well are taught through the museum. Seeing, listening, and touching are exciting experiences for most, some of whom may never be exposed elsewhere.
Kiah House

Why Save the Kiah House?

Why is the Kiah House important and relevant? The Kiahs were an immensely talented couple, nationally known for their pioneering contributions to the worlds of education, museum, art, and civil rights. Saving their home and museum will preserve their legacy, allow their story to be better told, and allow us to continue their work in some ways. Click here to donate to efforts to save the house. Dr. Deborah Johnson-Simon wrote today’s guest piece on the Kiah’s and their amazing contributions.

Dr. Calvin Lycurgus Kiah, a native of Princess Anne Maryland, and Virginia West Jackson Kiah, raised in Baltimore, Maryland came to Savannah, Georgia in 1951 when he accepted the position of leadership of the new Division of Education at Savannah State College. She taught art in the public schools. This couple were pioneers in a black cultural and museum movement.  They were part of a “Negro Canon” whose principal components were the African American political and cultural activists of the earlier twentieth century in Maryland, Washington, DC, New York. They were raised in the society of graduates from historically, Black colleges and universities such as Morgan State College where members of the Kiah family earned degrees, and Calvin’s father, Dr. Thomas H. Kiah, went on to become the president of what is today the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. Virginia’s father, Kieffer Albert Jackson, who was raised in Mississippi and witnessed lynching, finished Alcorn College, an HBCU. While her mother, Lillie Carroll Jackson, raised in Baltimore, received a degree from Morgan and spearheaded the largest branch of the NAACP through a depression. Virginia and her sister Juanita, would start the first youth division of the NAACP. They would be at the forefront of the “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” movement. Calvin would leave Savannah State after serving 16 years as Dean of the Education Division to desegregate Georgia State College in Atlanta, serving in the position of Vice President for Academic Affairs.  He was a World War II veteran, a member of Asbury United Methodist Church, a 33rd Degree Mason, Secretary and Treasurer of the Board of Directors of Toomer Realty Company, and a member of the Board of Directors of the Carver State Bank. Today Carver is the oldest bank headquartered in the Savannah area and the only bank in South Georgia that is certified by the United States Treasury Department as a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) It is no wonder that this couples’ activism would not also be directed to the black museum movement and preservation in the communities where they live. In Savannah they selected Historic Cuyler Brownsville for their home and museum.

Virginia Kiah with museum guests and her parrot.

This research is the outgrowth of a larger study of the founding generations of Black museum leaders. Specifically, the founding members of the professional museum organization, the African American Museums Association (AAMA). It is known today as the Association of African American Museums (AAAM). In their first published directory there were over 300 entries, and Virginia Jackson Kiah was among these pioneers.  Although, her museum was not the oldest established black museum, that distinction went to Hampton Institute est. 1868 following emancipation, she knew that her Kiah Museum in Savannah established in 1959 was not the youngest of the founding members. It also had the distinction of being the first museum started by African Americans in the City of Savannah. She was proud of Hampton and the fact that the museum at that HBCU was the oldest black museum in the country and welcoming of black children. Mrs. Kiah and her mother had been turned away from museums in Baltimore when she was a child. One the first articles to catch the attention of a Kiah researcher is by Atlanta Constitution writer Helen C. Smith titled “She Couldn’t Go to Museums, So She Started One” (1974) Virginia is quoted, “When I was a little girl in Baltimore, I loved art, but I couldn’t go to a museum because my skin was black.  I told my mother that someday I’d like to have a museum everybody could go to. My mama didn’t laugh at me. She said she would help me.” And so she did. Kiah’s own words set the stage for her entrance onto the Blacks in Museums world stage. Smith begins, “When Leah Janus, chairman of the Governor’s Committee for the United Nations Association, wanted some children’s art from around the world for a traveling UN exhibit, she knew just where to go. Virginia Kiah, wife of Calvin Kiah, vice president of academic services at Georgia State, has in a way a little United Nations in Savannah.” When Kiah accepted this challenge it was not new, it was just another phase of activism that had always been about the service of her people. While her sister Juanita had integrated University of Maryland Law School and used her talents for NAACP defense, Virginia used her art to capture the portraits of social and civil rights leaders in the movement. Now she could continue her activism through her museum. Mack and Welch in their article for the Public Historian, The State of the Black Museum, speak to the glue that draws Virginia and others to an organization like AAMA. “In creating their own organization and institutions, African Americans historically have developed ways to address both needs and aspirations that fostered values of community, service, and mutual support.  In this vein, museums were among the institutions established to both serve Black communities and serve as vehicles for social change.” (Public Historian Vol 40/August 2018/ No.3 p.9) 

Dr. Calvin Kiah

Virginia West Jackson was born on June 3, 1911 in East St. Louis, Illinois. Her attributes include composer, educator, graphic artist, painter, writer, museum founder-director, traveling show organizer, and one of the few artists of her day who majored in portraiture.  So it was no coincidence that she was among the founding members of the AAMA.  At least a quarter of the founding members of this organization were also artists or working in the arts.  It was also not surprising to find that her professional associations also included the National Conference of Artists that started in Atlanta in 1959.  In Savannah she became one of the first institutional members of color of the Museum Association of Savannah, Georgia, today known as the Coastal Museums Association (CMA), and CMA members benefit from a Kiah Fund named in her honor for members’ professional development.   

In the early 1970s when the Kiah’s received notice that their museum was about to be recognized by Reader’s Digest for its Treasures of America volume, they had to put together the important facts about the museum. The results of that self-evaluation were part of the documents kept by fellow preservationist and museum founder Westley Wallace Law (City of Savannah, Research Library & Municipal Archives W. W. Law Collection)

Calvin Kiah was born on October 1, 1910, and passed away in 1994, leaving Virginia to care for her beloved museum alone. She was not in the best of health at the time of his passing and struggled with health issues and trying to care for a museum that was starting to show the effects of time.  By that time, she had served on the Trustee Board of the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) and a building on that campus had been named for her.  After her father’s death in 1970, and mother’s death in 1975, their home in Baltimore was left to Virginia to be her second museum for the masses.  It was opened in 1978 and named in honor of her mother. Virginia would serve as the founding director. She would commute between Atlanta and Savannah and Baltimore to work on both museums. It was the first museum in Maryland honoring a Negro woman. Trying to care for that museum had taken a toll on Calvin’s health trying to get Virginia, who never learned to drive, to see to the affairs of the Baltimore.  She managed get Morgan State University to take over the museum.  By 1999, she could no longer live and operate the museum and was facing assisted living arrangements, and medical bills were mounting. She had a will and set up a Trust in hopes that a Trustee would carry out her wishes: that the promises to a young girl made by her mother had been realized.  Likewise, the promises that were made by her husband were kept to the fullest, “My husband had promised me that the next time we moved, we’d get a house large enough for me to have a museum for little children to come and enjoy.  It would be a learning museum, my kind of museum, with animals, and Indian artifacts, Civil War relics, antique furniture, and artwork.  And it should be free for everyone. This all came about, with Calvin paying all expenses” (Smith 1974).  Virginia’s health continue to fail and on December 28, 2001, she passed away. The property at 505 W. 36th Street that was her home and the Kiah Museum was closed, contents removed. It is  not known by whom, or where they were taken. The Virginia Kiah Trust is now in probate. The building has been allowed to deteriorate since the closing in 2002.

In 2014 Friends of the Kiah Museum under the Center for the Study of African and African Diaspora Museums and Communities (CFSAADMC) now known as the African Diaspora Museology Institute (ADMI) was created and conducts the research that investigates the cultural, anthropological, and genealogical forces that shaped the lives of Dr. Calvin Lycurgus Kiah, his wife Virginia Jackson Kiah, the building of the Kiah House Museum and leaving a legacy for the Masses.  

Kiah House

What is needed to Save the Kiah House?

The Kiah House is at a tipping point. Somewhat literally. While the structure is still absolutely salvageable, the damage is extensive. The roof, crumbling and peeling back at the edges, is the most immediate concern. The picture below, taken in mid-December 2020, shows how the metal roof has rusted and is no longer protecting the walls in some places. We need your donations to stabilize the building, including a completely new roof.

In addition to the obvious damage to the house, such as wood decay and water intrusion, a concrete block wall separating the Kiah’s property from their neighbors has fallen. Fortunately, the damage to the Bijoux Theater Fountain seems minimal so far.

The cinder block wall delineating the property line has fallen towards the Kiah House.

Bijoux Theater Fountain, saved by Mrs. Kiah, surrounded by cinder blocks from the fallen wall.

An even greater problem is that people without homes have been camping on the property. This is both a threat to the house and a human tragedy that some of our fellow citizens do not have life’s basics of food and shelter. A cigarette lighter was found on site this week, showing the potential for fire to get out of control, consume the house, and harm any people nearby.

Volunteers have repeatedly boarded up the Kiah’s Carriage House where the wood siding has decayed.

The sooner we can start repairing the house and carriage house, the more we can save. We need your help and donations to make it happen. Restoring the house only solves one side of this problem; it is not a solution that will help the people currently living on the property, but allowing the current situation to continue is not healthy for anyone.

Go Fund Me Details: Any amount is welcome and appreciated. Thank you! (If you are not comfortable giving online, checks can be mailed to the African Diaspora Museology Institute Inc., PO Box 5261, Savannah, GA 31414.) Donations to the Go Fund Me will be used for:

  • 50% – Emergency repairs to structure, property security measures including fencing, boarding up windows and doors, Preservation Assessment and Stabilization of Structures (Main Building and Carriage House), landscaping so the property isn’t taxed for blight
  • 50% – Historic preservation research of house and neighborhood, genealogy research on heirs, phase 2 archaeology survey, local architectural research to support application for Savannah’s official landmark designation
Sign discarded at the Kiah House.
Kiah House

Save the Kiah House

The Kiah House is a treasure beyond the physical building, which is in dire need of stabilization. The memories and stories that the Kiahs and their museum evoke are precious, and Dr. Deborah Johnson-Simon is capturing these memories for the future. But there are also stories and her/history embedded in the ground itself. “Unearthing” those stories is my specialty, archaeology. 

Digging and screening for artifacts in the Kiah House side yard, spring 2018.

In 2018, we did an archaeological study of the Kiah House, and we found an amazing wealth of artifacts. While the study was very preliminary, it showed the potential to learn about not only the Kiah Family, but also the Kandel family, Jewish European immigrants who owned the house from the 1920s through the 1940s. Most excitingly, we found soil layers dating before 1913, the year the house was built. This shows the potential for understanding life in the 1800s-era Cuyler-Brownsville neighborhood, of which there are few written documents.

A buckle and a fragment of pottery as they were unearthed at the Kiah House.

Your donation will enable us to do more archaeology to bring these stories to the forefront. Any amount is welcome and appreciated. Thank you! (If you are not comfortable giving online, checks can be mailed to the African Diaspora Museology Institute Inc., PO Box 5261, Savannah, GA 31414.)

Donations to the Go Fund Me will be used for

  • 50% – Emergency repairs to structure, property security measures including fencing, boarding up windows and doors, Preservation Assessment and Stabilization of Structures (Main Building and Carriage House), landscaping so the property isn’t taxed for blight
  • 50% – Historic preservation research of house and neighborhood, genealogy research on heirs, phase 2 archaeology survey, local architectural research to support application for Savannah’s official landmark designation
Students from Armstrong State University and Savannah State University joined Cuyler-Brownsville neighbors in working at the dig.

Every donation counts! In the words of the youngest inaugural poet, Amanda Gorman, “When your light shines brightest, what are you brave enough to see and what are you brave enough to be?” Be brave today and shine your light on the Kiah House Museum in Savannah and be the light for historic preservation of African American Heritage Preservation.

The Kiah House and Museum was listed on the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation’s 2021 Places in Peril.
Uncategorized

Holiday Gifts for Good: The 2020 Edition

This morning, while buying Christmas and birthday gifts downtown, I was reminded of my 2018 plea for buying holiday (or any other) gifts from local businesses and especially from local museums and historic sites. This year, this book topped my “must buy” list at the Davenport House:

“Old Southern Cookery” by Sue J. Hendricks and Christopher E. Hendricks. “All the proceeds of “Old Southern Cookery” will go to the Davenport House to help fund their expansion of the Kennedy Pharmacy.” from the WTOC article.

For the person who truly has everything, consider a donation to a good cause in their name, such as the Historic Kiah House Restoration Campaign or the Forsyth Farmers’ Market. Also super easy is a museum or historic site membership. This is a perfect way to support sites and makes it a breeze to go as often as you wish. Check out the Coastal Museums Association directory for more museums, many of which have gift shops and/or memberships for sale.

Not every museum is open right now, and many have altered hours, so it may be best to call before going out. Here is a sampling of my local favorites with great gift shops:

  • Davenport House Museum– great gifts and local history books
  • Beach Institute – more local history books, including ones you won’t find elsewhere!
  • Wormsloe Historic Site– also great history books and some mugs I’ve been coveting for years, but can’t seem to justify buying *yet another* mug
  • Jepson Center and the Owens-Thomas House and Slave Quarter- So many beautiful gifts for art lovers (and books)
The Owens-Thomas House and Slave Quarters
Uncategorized

Teaching Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving can be difficult to teach, especially to young ones. Our country’s treatment of Indigenous peoples has been horrific, so it can be tempting to tell the old story of “Pilgrims” and “Natives” breaking bread and living in apparent harmony. However, this erases history and Indigenous peoples’ experience while it fails all children in understanding our culture and the importance of changing our culture for the better. (I write this as I watch my son complete Thanksgiving activities on his virtual kindergarten.)

Below are some Thanksgiving teaching resources for teachers and parents, which tell a more accurate, and in most cases, anti-racist story. Full disclosure, I have not checked each and every link on every page. Also, I found these resources on the excellent Facebook page, Teaching Social Justice Resource Exchange.

Turkeys are native to the Americas, but apparently not favored by Ben Franklin.

From the Franklin Institute website:

DID BENJAMIN FRANKLIN WANT THE NATIONAL BIRD TO BE A TURKEY?

The story about Benjamin Franklin wanting the National Bird to be a turkey is just a myth. This false story began as a result of a letter Franklin wrote to his daughter criticizing the original eagle design for the Great Seal, saying that it looked more like a turkey. In the letter, Franklin wrote that the “Bald Eagle…is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly…[he] is too lazy to fish for himself.”

About the turkey, Franklin wrote that in comparison to the bald eagle, the turkey is “a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America…He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage.” So although Benjamin Franklin defended the honor of the turkey against the bald eagle, he did not propose its becoming one of America’s most important symbols.

advocacy

Archaeology Ordinance Update

Less than a year ago (but 3,168 covid years), the City of Savannah passed an archaeological ordinance. The ordinance has many shortcomings, but the idea behind it is to ease into archaeology, starting with a few public property projects as a pilot program. To assess the pilot program, an archaeology committee was formed consisting of representatives from the city, development community members, hobbyists, historic preservationists, and archaeologists. This committee has met twice to give the city feedback on requests for proposals (RFPs) to hire an archaeological firm to carry out the new ordinance. Several individuals (myself included) with experience in cultural resources management (CRM), the broad industry under which archaeology falls, discussed the importance of having two requests for proposals (RFPs). One RFP would be for a company to conduct the actual archaeology and a second RFP would be for an individual archaeologist or firm to act as a city archaeologist. The “city archaeologist” would be the city’s representative to protect the city’s interests. This is how virtually all CRM legislation works- you have a balance of power between the city/employer and company/employed. We were told this was too expensive. Two RFPs were not going to happen.

Here is a theoretical, while unlikely, example of why we need checks and balances. Let’s say the city accepts Company X’s bid, and Company X now holds the archaeological services contract. Their first project is to assess a piece of surplus property assigned for resale. How would the city know what is an appropriate amount of research and fieldwork? How and who is assessing that Company X is following best practices and not just digging everything in sight while causing the citizens an enormous bill?

The next phase in this pilot program was launched yesterday when the city released an RFP for “Annual Contract for Archaelogical Services” [sic]. Yes, “Archaeological” was spelled wrong.

Once CRM firm(s) are hired, I look forward to seeing how the process works and using these experiences to work out the kinks. Eventually, we need to expand the program to private property and hire a city archaeologist. Without both of these elements, the ordinance is mostly worthless. Despite this slow process (partly due to covid) and the caveats I’ve listed, I am hopeful because we are continuing the process of implementing the Archaeology Resource Protection Ordinance (its official title).

Archaeology sites, once destroyed, are gone forever and so is the history they hold.
advocacy

House Bill 906: Conveyance of Heritage Preserve Properties

Keeping up with pending legislation is never fun (for me) and can be tedious. However, it is very, very important. The latest round of “what could they possibly be thinking?” comes from the Georgia House of Representatives and is a direct threat to many state-owned historic properties in Georgia.

The Need to Know:

This bill, which has passed the Georgia House, allows the Department of Natural Resources to much more easily sell state-owned, Heritage Preserve-designated properties in portions “up to and including 15 acres”. The bill will allow the sale of land to a “private entity”, instead of just local governments, which is currently allowed. In addition, the bill will remove the Georgia General Assembly and the State Properties Commission from the process, preventing the checks and balances of power.

The Immediate Threat:

The real reason for this bill is to sell a portion of Butler Island Plantation and the Lampham-Patterson House to private individuals. These developers plan to tear down the dairy barn and create a beer brewery. Over 900 enslaved Africans lived on this rice plantation owned by two brothers, Pierce and John Butler. Eventually, many of these people were sold in Savannah during The Weeping Time, the largest slave sale in America held on March 2-3, 1859. The Weeping Time is considered by many a national disgrace. Scholar Hermina Glass-Hill has called Butler Island Plantation, “America’s Auschwitz.”

The Larger Implications:

This bill also leaves the other Heritage Preserve properties open to destruction, for example, Ossabaw Island. You can download a list of the properties threatened below. This list is from the Ossabaw Island Foundation, who gave the following details and caveats. The list is sorted by Senate District. Please note that this was created prior to the death of Jack Hill in April 2020, so he is still listed here. The Foundation has a high confidence in the data on this list. The property list originated from DNR, but they were told that prior to this year DNR did not have the list readily on hand. It was compiled earlier this year when the bill first surfaced.  The Ossabaw Island Foundation researched and added the senate information based on what we could find online regarding addresses, senate district information, county information, etc.

What You Can Do

  1. Sign this petition: Help Us Get a ‘No Vote’ on GA State House Bill 906 – ‘The Weeping Time’ Plantation Sale
  2. Call or email your state senators and tell them Georgians deserve to keep their heritage, no matter how difficult it is. Once public land is sold to private developers, it is lost forever. Find you state senator’s contact information via the state’s My Voter page or Openstates website.
  3. Share the petition and tell your friends about the situation.

Learn More:

Here is the Georgia Conservancy‘s explanation of the bill and the reasons behind it:

“House Bill 906, introduced by Rep. Darlene Taylor (R-173), seeks to amend methods of the conveyance of state heritage preserve properties. (Code Section 12-3-76). The Georgia Heritage Trust Program, established by the Heritage Trust Act of 1975, identified, acquired and protected “heritage areas” in Georgia that exhibited “unique natural characteristics, special historical significance, or particular recreational values.” Examples of heritage sites, areas, and preserves are Ossabaw Island State Heritage Area, Lewis Island Natural Area on the Altamaha, Lapham-Patterson House State Historic Site in Thomasville, Little Tybee Island, Pigeon Mountain WMA, and Wormsloe Historic Site, among others.

The changes sought would allow for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR), upon approval of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Board, to remove (per property) a maximum of 15 acres from a state heritage preserve and convey fee simple title to “a willing county or local government or private entity”, with restrictions applicable to the property, including a perpetual conservation easement. State law currently defines the only allowed recipients of such fee simple titles as a willing county or local government.

The proposed amendment seeks to add “private entity” to this list, with “private entity” being defined as “any natural person, corporation, general partnership, limited liability company, limited partnership, joint venture, business trust, public benefit corporation, nonprofit entity, or other business entity.”

Additionally, the bill seeks to remove the Georgia General Assembly and the State Properties Commission from the conveyance approval process of properties “up to and including 15 acres”.

HB 906 has passed the full House and will now move to the Senate for consideration.

We understand the intent of HB 906 is to better ensure that DNR can properly and efficiently maintain structures on certain state properties.In reviewing this legislation, we have questions related to the definition of private entity and the terms of perpetual conservation easements in this context. We are assessing this bill and its provisions to ensure that the long-term conservation viability of state heritage areas is maintained.

You can also read the bill itself. And there is more information on the previously linked Change.org petition.

Over 336,000 acres of state-owned land are designated as Heritage Preserves. This represents 122 separate properties. The Heritage Preserve designation is the most stringent protection for state-owned land in Georgia. Coastal area Heritage Preserves include Ossabaw Island, Butler Island Plantation, Little Tybee Island, Wormsloe State Historic Site, Skidaway Island State Park, Altamaha Wildlife Management Area, Hofwyl-Broadfield Historic Site, Sapelo Island Wildlife Management Area, and St. Catherine’s Island Bar Natural Area.*

The Ossabaw Island Foundation, Georgia Conservancy, Patt Gunn with the Savannah Gallery on Slavery and Healing, and Hermina Glass-Hill with the Susie King Taylor Institute in Midway are all coordinating efforts to stop this bill. Donations and other support are welcome.

Butler Island Plantation specifics*:

It has been confirmed that the catalyst for HB 906 is a proposal by a private developer to purchase a portion of Butler Island Plantation in McIntosh County for redevelopment as a brewery/distillery. The Butler Island property is sacred to hundreds of people in coastal Georgia and across the state; especially to Gullah Geechee people and other African-American people who feel personal connectivity to the place as a homeplace.  It has been a gathering place in recent years for reunions for people who have traced their ancestry back to  African American people enslaved on this plantation. According to a petition on Change.org, archaeological radar has indicated that the site is filled with artifacts that will reveal untold information about the people who lived there, including possible human remains. A coalition has formed, GA Coalition to Save the Butler Island Plantation House, that is comprised of activists and historians and “Keepers of the Culture” in the Gullah-Geechee and statewide African-American communities.  They have a change.org petition online that has gained over 4,000 signatures in less than one week.

A house on the property was built in 1910 and is dilapidated. The house is intended to be restored for the distillery, and a barn on the property from the early 20th century is proposed for demolition.  The goal of the sale is to save the house; some are seeing the sale and redevelopment as an economic boon for McIntosh County. 

There are two issues here:

 Issue 1) Passage of HB 906. The bill in its current form threatens all of the Heritage Preserve lands in Georgia. If the HP designation is breached in any way, that is the beginning of the end of protection for 122 critical sites.

Issue 2)  Withdraw HB 906 and remove HP designation from Butler Island, then proceed with the sale. Even if HB 906 dies in its current form, it is still possible for the state to remove the HP designation for Butler Island, which would clear the way for this sale to continue.  This is an option that we have been told is being considered. 

Credits*:

Portions of this (particularly those with *) were taken directly from Ossabaw Island Foundation’s advocacy materials for this issue. Thanks to Robin Gunn for getting the word out to our regional museum community.

Kiah House

Kiah House Historical Marker

Virginia Kiah was a nationally recognized artist, teacher, museum curator, and civil rights leader. Her museum was on the second floor on her home in Savannah’s predominantly African American Cuyler-Brownsville neighborhood. Started in November 1959, Mrs. Kiah named it the Museum for the Masses, because everyone was welcome. During a time of heightened racial aggression in the Deep South, Kiah successfully opened a place where African American youth felt welcomed and comfortable. She wanted to show visitors, and most importantly children, that they were in a public space where they were no longer second-class citizens and not categorized by their race. 

Kiah Kindness Rock, May 27, 2020

Dr. Deborah Johnson-Simon has spent years recording oral histories and writing ethnographies on Mrs. Kiah and her husband, educator Calvin Kiah. We also completed a small archaeology project on the Kiah House in the Spring of 2018. Dr. Johnson-Simon continues to maintain their gravesites and hold events to memorialize these remarkable people. She is also leading the cause to install a Georgia Historical Marker at their house. Please consider giving a donation towards this goal. You can donate on the Go Fund Me website and read more about the project there.

The Kiah’s gravesite filled with Kindness Rocks, made for Virginia Kiah’s 108th birthday in June 2019.