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.
Kiah House

Save the Kiah House

The Kiah House is a treasure beyond the physical building, which is in dire need of stabilization. The memories and stories that the Kiahs and their museum evoke are precious, and Dr. Deborah Johnson-Simon is capturing these memories for the future. But there are also stories and her/history embedded in the ground itself. “Unearthing” those stories is my specialty, archaeology. 

Digging and screening for artifacts in the Kiah House side yard, spring 2018.

In 2018, we did an archaeological study of the Kiah House, and we found an amazing wealth of artifacts. While the study was very preliminary, it showed the potential to learn about not only the Kiah Family, but also the Kandel family, Jewish European immigrants who owned the house from the 1920s through the 1940s. Most excitingly, we found soil layers dating before 1913, the year the house was built. This shows the potential for understanding life in the 1800s-era Cuyler-Brownsville neighborhood, of which there are few written documents.

A buckle and a fragment of pottery as they were unearthed at the Kiah House.

Your donation will enable us to do more archaeology to bring these stories to the forefront. 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
Students from Armstrong State University and Savannah State University joined Cuyler-Brownsville neighbors in working at the dig.

Every donation counts! In the words of the youngest inaugural poet, Amanda Gorman, “When your light shines brightest, what are you brave enough to see and what are you brave enough to be?” Be brave today and shine your light on the Kiah House Museum in Savannah and be the light for historic preservation of African American Heritage Preservation.

The Kiah House and Museum was listed on the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation’s 2021 Places in Peril.
Freedmen school & monastery

Malaria & Mosquito Control

I was pretty sick last weekend, nothing unfixable, but something that definitely will have to be fixed. Immobile for 30 minutes while a machine took pictures of my insides, I contemplated 1870s medicine (and what IS that thing stuck to the ceiling?). The Benedictines at Skidaway Island’s monastery and Freedmen school were often ill from malaria and other mosquito-borne diseases. Father Oswald frequently writes to Abbot Boniface about the monks’ health troubles. Many religious only stayed on Skidaway for months or a year before requesting a return to St. Vincent or elsewhere, anywhere north, and away from the mosquitoes.

Studying a letter from Father Oswald at Skidaway Island to Abbot Boniface, St. Vincent Abbey, Pennsylvania, on my back porch while contemplating modern medicine.

Bro Alphons is sick in the hospital in Savannah, this day a week ago, I gave him the last Sacraments, now he is recovering, but still he will never be strong.”

Courtesy of Benedictine military school archives

Brother Alphonse Schoene is often referenced as suffering from illness but was present throughout nearly monastery’s entire existence. In August of 1878, Father Oswald administered the last sacrament, but Alphonse recovered. A month later, Father Oswald wrote, “Poor Bro Alphons is at the hospital again in Savannah, he has dispepsy in a high degree, these many years already; and the fever besides”. Alphonse’s stomach trouble (the dyspepsia) was attributed to his childhood, but not further explained.

The treatment for malaria was quinine, which is no longer very effective and therefore not recommended. Today there are stronger drugs, with pretty wicked side effects for some people. Historically, when quinine was ineffective, doctors recommended traveling north to allow the body to heal without danger of constant re-infection. This was the case with another malaria victim, Brother Ignatius. In September, 1879, Father Melchior reported, “Brother Ignatius is almost continuously sick. He has not worked one day for the last week”. By November, Father Oswald requested Brother Ignatius’ reassignment “because the Doctor told him he cannot get well again here as his system is filled with Malaria, which consists in little animals that pass from the Atmosphere into the blood and regenerate and propagate themselves in the blood, and which can be killed only by Quinine,  or a preparation of Peruvian bark”. However, quinine is not effective in everyone. Poor Brother Ignatius had been “sick continually since June” and hospitalized repeatedly. Father Oswald regretted losing him and wrote very highly of him as a modest, pious man who was the best carpenter on Skidaway. Brother Ignatius was transferred back his native Pennsylvania by the end of 1879 and spent the rest of his life working throughout western Pennsylvania including Pittsburg in 1890s and Mount Pleasant, a small town near St. Vincent around 1900.  Brother Ignatius died in 1914 at the age of 62 and is buried in the St. Vincent cemetery. 

Today, of course, we know the “little animals” are actually a parasite, which get into your bloodstream via infected mosquitos. Mosquito Control with its little yellow helicopter is not just making our lives less itchy by killing mosquitos, but reducing disease transmission by killing the mosquitos that carry malaria, yellow fever, West Nile virus, Zika virus, Chikungunya, Eastern Equine Encephalitis, Dengue virus, and others. While spewing nasty chemicals everywhere can give one pause, I’ve spoken with the pilots and entomologist at Mosquito Control, and they love to talk about their mission. They have a great website too, including a “Skeeter Meeter”, a mosquito forecast for the week.

** all original sources courtesy of Benedictine Military School Archives

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, 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