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.
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.
Massive thank you to everyone who came out to celebrate Virginia Kiah’s birthday this weekend. It was wonderful meeting new people, especially those who had known Mrs. Kiah.
So what’s next in preserving the memory and legacy of this remarkable couple, Dr. and Mrs. Kiah? We are writing a grant to pay for a historic preservationist to evaluate the house. We can’t begin any preservation efforts without first knowing where the problems are (and there are many). The grant pays for 60% of consultant’s fees, so we need to raise approximately $4,000 to make our match. To donate, click here and press the little up arrow to donate in $10 increments ($10, $20, $50, $1,000…). A PayPal pop-up window will appear when you click the button. We appreciate every dime!
You can also support the cause by buying a t-shirt. The t-shirts are a limited time offer, so get your orders in before June 17.
About the Exhibition: Savannah State University students from the Introduction to Anthropology class and CFSAADMC members’ research of Georgia Black Museums in partnership with the St. Joseph’s Candler African American Health Center project on Black Folk Remedies present their results in an exhibition featuring the ethnographic fieldwork of students and others to collect the oral history home remedies among African American Families in the Georgia Low Country. Also learn about the proposed Museum Administration Certificate Program.
Exhibition Curator (s): Tina Hicks, Ella Williamson (AAH) Black Folk Remedies, Dr. Deborah Johnson-Simon- SSU Anthropology
Join us on a walking tour of Cuyler-Brownville’s historic sites, including Dr. & Mrs. Virginia Jackson Kiah’s home and museum, followed by picnic in Floyd “Pressboy” Adams Park (32nd and Cuyler Streets). The walking tour will begin at 10am at the park and end in the same location. The walk will help show community support for a historical marker.
Jan Fox – Historic Cuyler Brownsville Neighborhood Development, Inc.
Laura Seifert- Savannah Archaeology Alliance (SAA)
Caring for Church Religious Heritage:
Worship at Asbury United Methodist Church
Sunday, June 2, 2019 at 11AM
Contact(s): Pastor Debora Shinholster Richards, (912) 236-4792
Organizers: Juanita Tucker, Carolyn Fletcher, Vincent Hamilton
1201 Abercorn Street, Savannah, GA 31401
Come and worship at the home church of Dr. Calvin and Virginia Kiah. A program insert is being prepared with collected birthday wishes a special memories of Mrs. Kiah. Also, a handout of her favorite song that can be taken by those attending the service who want to go with the Friends of the Kiah Museum to wreath-laying at the gravesite. Mr. Vincent Hamilton, former student of Mrs. Kiah and Asbury Lay Leader has been asked to officiate the gravesite ceremony.
The Gravesite Visit and Wreath Ceremony is at Hillcrest Abbey East, 1600 Wheaton St, Savannah, GA, immediately following morning worship.
Caring for Family and Ancestor Knowledge:
Genealogy Research Support Center (GRSC) at the Beach Institute and Cultural Center
Monday, June 3, 2019, 10:00 AM-3:00 PM
Contact(s): Ron Christopher, 502 Harris St, Savannah, GA 31402
Finding Family – How Hard Can It Be?
Historic Savannah Church Historians and Family Historians, You’re Invited! It’s a time for caring and sharing your family stories and learn about the newest place in town that wants to care for your family stories from Savannah and throughout the African Diaspora. Schedule for the workshop is forthcoming.
Workshop experts include:
Genealogy Specialist- Mrs. Dorothy Tuck, (Celebrated Researcher of Megan Markel Georgia Ancestry) Genealogical Society of Henry and Clayton Counties-The Brown House, McDonough, GA
Amir Jamal Touré, J.D., a professor at Savannah State University (SSU) in the Africana studies program.
Library Specialist – Sharen Lee, Bull Street Library Genealogy Room Savannah, GA
Dr. Alena Pirok– Public Historian GSU-Armstrong Development of Free and Enslaved People of Savannah Database
The Phase 1 technical report on the Kiah House is now available! Click here to download a copy. The report includes preliminary historical research on Kiah House residents and analysis of the archaeological materials found. A few interesting tidbits:
Although Cuyler-Brownsville is an historically African American neighborhood, in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, the Kiah House was occupied by Jewish immigrants from Austria and Poland.
The first African American residents were Tony and Maggie Everhart. Reverend Everhart was the Pastor of the Holy Coptic Ethiopian Church in the mid-1950s.
All of the children’s artifacts were found in during the Kiah Family occupation. These artifacts included glass and ceramic marbles, porcelain tea plates, and a possible doll’s head.
The initial test units show that the archaeological resources are intact and more research should be done.
One of our major initiatives is archaeological research at the Kiah House. Phase I investigations were conducted in the spring of 2018.
Archaeological and Historical Background
Located at 505 W. 36th street, the Kiah House is significant because it was the longtime residence of Dr. Calvin L. Kiah, a professor who led Savannah State College’s education department, and Virginia Kiah, a public school teacher from 1951-1963, artist, and curator of the Kiah House Museum on the home’s second floor. Dr. and Mrs. Kiah bought the house on May 5, 1959 from Marie F. Kelson. Mrs. Kiah died in 2001, and the house has been stuck in probate and unoccupied ever since (Segedy 2016). Consequently, the property has fallen into serious disrepair and is listed on the City of Savannah’s “100 Worst Properties”. “Because of the mayor’s agenda to combat blight properties this property is endangered. It’s important to be proactive regarding the documentation of the historical significance of the property through more oral history, community gatherings, cleanup campaigns, and an archaeological study. (Johnson-Simon 2017)
To the best of our knowledge, there has been no previous archaeology on this property, so we submitted the site to the Georgia Archaeological Site File. The Kiah House (9Ch1452) does not appear in the 1898 Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps, but it does appear on the 1916 version. The house is in the Cuyler-Brownsville neighborhood, which is one of the oldest African-American communities in Savannah. The neighborhood is bounded by Anderson Lane, 42nd Street, Montgomery Street, and Ogeechee Road (Johnson-Simon 2017).
This site holds potential for exploration of African-American history and bringing this history into greater and wider understanding. Research questions include:
What were people eating? Can we identify African-American foodways?
What types of medicine were used? What was the health status of the residents?
What consumer choices were the residents making?
Can we identify strategies for combating racism?
Once this site specific research is completed and the technical report is written, the research can be extended. The author has been involved in several late 19th, early 20th century African-American archaeological sites in Savannah. A comparative study is needed between the rural Freedmen school (1878-ca. 1890s) on Skidaway Island, the Sorrel-Weed Carriage House, perhaps showing African-American domestic labor in the late 1800s, the nineteenth century Railroad Ward houses, and the Kiah House. By comparing these very different types of sites, we can start to understand the breadth of the post-bellum African-American experience in Savannah.
The literature search will gain basic information about the property and its inhabitants. Deed records, census records, and city directories are important starting points. The archaeological literature will also be searched for comparative examples.
The front yard is small, largely planted and difficult to access archaeologically. The western yard is also quite small. We placed one 1×2 meter test unit in the eastern side yard and a 1×1 meter test unit in the backyard. Test units will be added as time and the availability of labor permits. Students from the Armstrong Campus of Georgia Southern University and Savannah State University were the field crew for this project. Lab work was conducted on the Armstrong Campus Anthropology Lab. Analysis is ongoing.
Our partners are Dr. Deborah Johnson-Simon with the Center for the Study of African and African Diaspora Museums and Communities, (CFSAADMC), whose mandate is to tell the stories of African Diaspora museums, and the Friends of the Kiah House Museum and Foundation, which oversees the historic preservation efforts of one of the first museums in Savannah started by African Americans. This researcher believes there is great potential to combine public archaeology with the ethnographic research and neighborhood oral histories collected by Dr. Deborah Johnson-Simon. Not only will this provide a greater database of information, but this will allow for more community initiatives and involvement.
The excavations were open to the public and well attended. We made the front page of the Savannah Morning News and WTOC did a story. The technical report, results, and next steps will be available soon!