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

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.
Backyard History, Kiah House

Happy 108th Birthday, Virginia Kiah!

To celebrate Virginia Kiah’s 108th Birthday and kick-off renewed efforts to memorialize her legacy, we are hosting a series of events leading up to June 3rd, Mrs. Kiah’s birthday. The “we” of this are: Friends of the Kiah House Museum, Center for the Study of African and African Diaspora Museums and Communities (CFSAADMC), Historic Cuyler Brownsville Neighborhood Development, Inc., and Savannah Archaeological Alliance. Please feel free to attend all or some of the events. If you can’t attend, consider buying a t-shirt to support the cause. Money from the t-shirts will go towards a Kiah House historical marker.

Caring for Creation: “Art is in Everything”

A Birthday Celebration for Virginia Kiah, Kiah Museum Founder

Caring for Creation Then and Now:

Georgia Black Museum and Black Folk Remedies Exhibition

Friday May 31, 2019 Exhibit Reception, 4-7pm

Savannah State University, Social Sciences Building‘s Social Science Gallery

Exhibit runs June 1- June 30, 2019

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

Contact(s) Otilia Iancu -Director MPA at SSU, iancuo@savannahstate.edu 


Caring for Community Cultural Heritage:

Cuyler-Brownville Living History Walk

Saturday, June 1, 2019, 10:00 AM- 3:00 PM

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.

Contact(s):

Jan Fox – Historic Cuyler Brownsville Neighborhood Development, Inc.

Laura Seifert- Savannah Archaeology Alliance (SAA)

Youth Organizers

Essence Irvin

Shanell Byfield


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.


Image from https://www.savannah.com/savannahs-history-beach-institute/

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

Genealogy Workshop

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

Kiah House

Kiah House Phase 1: Report now available

Skeleton key
Skeleton key found at the Kiah House.

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.

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The Kiah House in an undated photograph. Courtesy of the Friends of the Kiah House Museum.

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The Kiah House, spring 2018, is in need of preservation.

Kiah House

Kiah House Project

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)

IMG_1898
The Kiah House desperately needs preservation.

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).

Research Questions

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.

Methodology

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.

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We found several children’s artifacts including this tea saucer and several marbles.

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!

Bibliography

Johnson-Simon, Deborah

2017    Kiah House Museum Request, Powerpoint.

Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps, 1898 and 1916, available via the Digital Library of Georgia (http://dlg.galileo.usg.edu).

Saunders, CeCe and Susan R. Chandler

2001    Get the Lead Out. In Dangerous Places: Health, Safety, and Archaeology, David A. Poirier and Kenneth L. Feder, editors, pp. 189-204. Greenwood Published Group, Westport, CN.

Segedy, Andria

2016    Savannah Movement Fighting for Kiah House Museum. Savannah Morning News 20 June (online), Savannah, Ga.