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.
Uncategorized

Holiday Gifts for Good

I was inspired by The Accidental Preservationist’s Holiday Guide to Gifts that Give Back – Supporting Historic Preservation in Charleston, SC. I absolutely love gifts that give back. The older I get, the less “stuff” I want, and I’m also trying to pass non-materialistic values onto my four-year-old. So here’s a mix of preservation and history gifts that support good causes while being pretty awesome gifts (because everyone wants a little something). 

My favorite gifts are books, both to give and receive. I’m the uncool mom who always gifts books.  My son is getting four books for his birthday today (Happy Birthday sweetie!). I bought two of these books through a Scholastic program at his school, where every order gets free books for the school. I also bought for his friend’s upcoming birthday and Christmas. 

For the adults, Savannah Square by Square is a beautiful coffee table book authored by Michael Jordan and Mick McCay with photography and art by Les Wilkes, Phil Hodgkins, and Constance McCay. Original art work from the book is currently on display and prints are available for purchase. See the image below for details. (Full disclosure, Michael is a friend. Also check out his Hidden History of Civil War Savannah and excellent and surprisingly funny read). 

I know, Amazon is easy, but I encourage you to look into local Museum Shops. Again, these shops are the best places to find a selection of local books. Davenport House and Wormsloe Historic Site immediately spring to mind for great books selections. Museum Shops often have great presents for all price levels and people, and you don’t have to pay admission to browse. Have a Girl Scout in your life? Look at the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace. Military member of the family? How about the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force? Perhaps you have an Uncle Gary who is a twenty year veteran of the Mighty Eighth. No? Just me then. The Mighty Eighth even has an online shop

Dr. Pressly’s extensive history on Savannah’s economy and Caribbean connections. Below is Helen Rountree’s “Pocahontas, Powhatan, Opechancanough” that I bought at Jamestown during a 2007 trip.

“I like my history Black, hold the sugar”. Joseph McGill’s Slave Dwelling Project more than educates people, it transforms lives by allowing for real conversations about history and slavery. Support this amazing cause with this cheeky t-shirt

Membership to a museum or historic site also makes a great gift. My son’s grandparents are renewing his membership to Oatland Island Wildlife Center, because he loves walking the trails with his little friends. And picking up lots of sticks along the way. Here is a partial list of the museums in the greater Savannah area. Most offer membership at various levels, and you can always add an extra donation! Historic Savannah Foundation is a venerable preservation organization with cool membership benefits (admission to the Davenport House, an invite to the gala!). Another good option is the Forsyth Farmers’ Market. (See my post about how supporting farmers benefits preservation.) Being a Friend of the Market gets you a Vendor of the Week discount, the newsletter, and Invitations to Farm Tours. Joining at the family level also gets you a colorful market tote bag, which people want to buy but it’s only available to Friends, and the Market-to-Table Recipe book with contributions by market friends and famers. (Full disclosure, I am on the Board of the Forsyth Farmers’ Market). 

Please consider buying local and supporting preservation and archaeology. I hope you have a happy and healthy holiday season. 

PS If you want to get me something, write letters to your city and county  officials and tell them you support archaeology. Demand an archaeology ordinance and a city/county archaeologist! 

Backyard History

Hull Park: Backyard History

Recently on three separate occasions, people spontaneously shared their personal Hull Park history. Twice, it was grandfathers watching grandchildren at the playground and baseball diamond, and once it was a City of Savannah employee who manages the park. This week, a gentleman told me that while the city has replaced nearly every piece of playground equipment over the years, the merry-go-round is the original. He said, “I’m 66-years-old. I got hurt on that merry-go-round. My daughter got hurt on that merry-go-round…” He trailed off but smiled and shook his head as he watched his granddaughter hang off it and spin around crazily.

IMG_3713
The venerable Hull Park merry-go-round

The Ardsley Park/Chatham Crescent Neighborhood Association’s website gives a quick history:

“By the 1930’s, development of Ardsley Park and Chatham Crescent was nearly complete. The [Developers] Lattimore’s then set out for their next development, Ardmore. Running from 52nd Street to 55th Street to the South, and punctuated with a large, diamond shaped Hull Park, Ardmore would also become a popular Savannah neighborhood. On Sunday, November 8, 1925, a full page ad in the Savannah Morning News reported the public sale of lots in Ardmore.  The day after the sale, it was announced that every lot had been sold before noon the same day.”

I also found a great little video on the neighborhood’s history produced by the City of Savannah and featuring one of my favorite people. I love histories written with multiple layers: the practical details about time frames and architectural styles mixed with personal stories about the residents’ lives.

IMG_3717
View of Hull Park facing north with recent playground equipment (foreground) and the baseball diamond in the distance.
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.

IMG_1811 edited
The Kiah House in an undated photograph. Courtesy of the Friends of the Kiah House Museum.

IMG_1898
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.

IMG_2037
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.