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.

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