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.
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)
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.