Freedmen school & monastery

Pride Month: One Historical perspective

For nearly four years, I have been researching the Benedictine monastery and Freedmen school on Skidaway Island, first through archaeological field work in 2016 and 2017. Since I have continued my historical research with the goal to write a book. This monastery was one of several started in 1870s Savannah, with the aim to convert the African American families living and farming on Skidaway Island, teach boys in their boarding school, and train adult African American lay brothers to further spread Catholicism.

One of the richest data sources are the letters between the monks. Most, but not all, of the letters are the Skidaway mission founder Father Oswald Moosmüller reporting to his superior Abbot Boniface Wimmer at St. Vincent Abbey in Pennsylvania. In one letter, I was quite shocked to find a reference to gay sex. Really I was shocked to find any reference to sex, because these were monks. In March of 1878, Father Oswald wrote to Abbot Innocent Wolf of Kansas (honestly, the best name ever) and explained why he dismissed an unnamed African American lay brother,

“Yesterday I found myself obliged to raise a row and expel that fellow, after having heard two witnesses in his presence, which proved that he is a Sodomist etc. etc. I claimed that right for myself 1, because there was periculum in mora* 2, if I have the right to receive brothers & let them make their novitiate and take their vows so I have also the right to dismiss them; 3, moreover according to the laws of Georgia there is capital punishment on such crimes; with a nigro [sic] they do not make much ceremony in that matter”.

source: Benedictine Military SChool Archives, Savannah, Georgia

It is unclear whether Father Oswald means that homosexuality is rarely tried and punished when African Americans are involved, or whether an African American accused of homosexuality would simply be lynched without a trial. Either way, Father Oswald expelled the man without further mention. While this man lost his home and possibly his vocation, according to the contemporary laws, he could have lost much more. The punishment for having an LGBT+ relationship was capital punishment. You could be put to death. Pause for a moment and consider those implications.

This document leaves so much unexplained. Nothing is mentioned of his partner. Presumably, it was not someone in the monastery, as no one else was expelled. So his partner was likely another person on Skidaway Island. Further, since we do not have the man’s name, it is nearly impossible to trace his life further. Did he leave the island? Did he leave the Catholic faith? How did he make a living? Did he ever get married or have children?

*Latin for “danger in delay”

Backyard History, public archaeology

Graves in the Airport Runway

Have you ever seen two gray rectangles distinct from the surrounding gray of the Savannah airport runway? A friend’s Facebook post of the Dotson Runway Graves led me to several articles on this oddity. In short, as the Savannah Airport expanded into the surrounding farmland, it took over a family cemetery as well. Many of the graves were exhumed and the bodies reburied in another cemetery, but per the family’s wishes, Richard and Catherine Dotson were left in place. According to the Atlas Obscura article, “Citing the fact that their ancestors would have wanted to stay on the land they worked so hard to cultivate and purchase, the surviving Dotson relatives refused to allow Richard and Catherine to be moved.” So the runway was built around them and the graves given new markers.

The Dotson graves. The picture is from the Atlas Obscura article. I suspect it’s a Google maps or Google Earth capture, since we can’t walk out on the runway to take photographs.

While this may seem like a bizarre story, these are exactly the type of problems and solutions archaeologists face everyday. Most archaeologists (probably around 80%) work in Cultural Resources Management (CRM). This means they don’t work in academia or in museums but work for archaeology companies or in government. CRM essentially began in 1966 with the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act. This federal law mandates archaeology and historic preservation for projects with certain conditions:

  • projects on federal land or in federal waters (like National Parks or the White House front lawn)
  • projects involving federal permits or federal money (like the Savannah Harbor Deepening)

But the laws do not mandate how the archaeology is done. In fact, the law only requires that the project managers “consider impacts” to cultural resources eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. Of course, I am radically simplifying a complex process. My point is that archaeologists do more than dig. Archaeologists and their cousins (such as historic preservationists) manage archaeology sites and cultural resources to find solutions that work for the most number of stakeholders: the project developer, descendants, businesses, neighbors, etc. To do so, they often mix many techniques like “consultation with stakeholders”. In the case of the Dotson graves, it was the descendant family members whose ancestors’ graves were disturbed. In other cases, such as the CSS Georgia ironclad, the Army Corps of Engineers represented the military’s constituency, since the Confederate Navy no longer exists.

Barge over the CSS Georgia. From this platform, archaeologists recovered artifacts and pieces of the ironclad for study and preservation.

Most importantly, cultural resource managers need and want your input on projects. Resources on public lands belong to all of us, and we are all stakeholders to varying extents. The CSS Georgia project was much more successful than others in sharing the project with the public. The CRM firm, Panamerican Consultants, Inc., hired an archaeologist specifically to do public outreach, resulting in the Raise the Wreck festival. A documentarian was hired, the CRM company head Steve James spoke to my students at Armstrong, and much more. We need to demand that more projects follow this model so this becomes the norm and not the exception.

Alliance series, Backyard History, public archaeology

October 9, 1779: Backyard History

October 9, 1779, is the anniversary of the Battle of Savannah. Most people don’t know there was a major Revolutionary War battle in downtown Savannah. At 800 casualties, this is considered one of the bloodiest battles of the American Revolution. However, only approximately 50 of these were British. We lost. Badly. The British held Savannah until the war’s end.

Archaeology has contributed to to our knowledge of this event. The Coastal Heritage Society manages a small, but critical, portion of the battlefield, Battlefield Memorial Park. In 2005, the park was scheduled for rehabilitation and a make-over. Archaeologist Rita Elliott asked for one last chance to find the redoubt, or small fort that the Americans and their allies attacked in an attempt to retake Savannah. She was successful, and Rita’s findings were incorporated into the reconstructed redoubt, memorial stones, and interpretive signs throughout the park. This work was also the catalyst for two National Park Service American Battlefield Protection Program grants, starting in 2007. I was fortunate to be part of the “Savannah Under Fire” project team, who extended the excavations throughout downtown Savannah’s greenspaces, finding more intact pieces of the battlefield.

Archaeologists are often criticized for being “elitist” and not sharing artifacts or knowledge. Especially for this project, that cannot be farther from the truth. In addition to the signs on Battlefield Park, there is an exhibit in the Savannah History Museum next door, where you can see the artifacts recovered from the battlefield. The project’s social media is still floating around including this brochure and (my favorite) a video of us in the field. The technical reports for all phases of the project are available as free downloads on the LAMAR Institute website:

(While there, you can also look at more than 200 other archaeology reports from Georgia and the Southeast.)

Finally, today, and every October 9, the Coastal Heritage Society holds a Battlefield Memorial March. I attended several years under obligation as an employee but was always impressed by the event and its significance.

October 9, 2018, Battlefield Memorial March. Photograph courtesy of the Coastal Heritage Society Facebook page.
October 9, 2018, Battlefield Memorial March. Photograph courtesy of the Coastal Heritage Society Facebook page.

I urge you to explore your Backyard History, our Revolutionary War battlefield. There is so much more than I could possibly cover in one blog post. Battlefield Memorial Park is a great place to start.

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)

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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.