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Little Details: Unlocking the museum; a civil rights journey

By Katherine Bielawa Stamper

Walking along Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, we arrived at the Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum at opening time. The door was locked. The lights were dim. A young staff member waiting outside said someone would be there in 15 minutes to let us in.

We didn’t fuss. We didn’t fret. We were on “Southern Time,” embracing a vibe refreshingly mellow compared to the staccato pace we’re accustomed to.

We experienced a similar circumstance days earlier at Savannah’s Telfair Academy Museum. A sympathetic security guard took pity on our assembly of tourists waiting outside the wrought iron gate. Ticketing staff was late. He let us in for free.

Touring a civil rights museum in the American South was high on our priority list. We’d attended the Unitarian Universalist Church of Savannah the previous Sunday and spoke with members after services, some of whom had engaged in civil rights’ activism. My husband and I opted to take a walk and return to the museum a little later.

Savannah, the oldest city in Georgia, was established via royal charter in 1733. General James Oglethorpe envisioned a slave-free province producing high-profit silk for the British Empire. Economic reality clashed with Oglethorpe’s grand vision. South Carolina, a slave state just across the Savannah River, presented a formidable economic threat. The slavery ban was lifted by 1735. Cotton, rice and lumber would form the economic triumvirate of an economy sustained by the inhumanity of slavery.

Ralph Mark Gilbert (1899-1956) served as pastor of Savannah’s First African Baptist Church from 1939 until his death. The church, recognized as one of the oldest, continuous Black congregations in America, was organized before the American Revolution.

Gilbert, active in the civil rights movement, was credited with revitalizing the Savannah chapter of the NAACP. Raising awareness of racial inequality, organizing peaceful protests and registering hundreds of previously disenfranchised blacks to vote are among the initiatives associated with his tenure.

The museum, which opened in 1998, is housed in the former Wage Earners Savings and Loan Bank. Erected in 1914, it served as the largest African-American bank in the United States, providing crucial seed money for black-owned businesses and homeowners’ mortgages in the segregated South.

An older gentleman in work-a-day clothes arrived with the key to unlock the museum. He explained that he was a board member—and a local construction company owner. He’d left a worksite to let us in. We paid our admission fee, signed the guest book and were off to explore the exhibits.

I was struck by the intimacy and relative quiet of the museum. We’d spend two leisurely hours. I think we were the only visitors during that time.

Our tour started with a film featuring newsreel interviews with Savannah’s civil rights activists who worked to end the city’s racial segregation in schools, hospitals, churches, parks, theaters, restaurants and other public accommodations.

It’s hard to imagine that returning black servicemen—veterans of World War II battlefields in Europe and the Pacific—were not allowed to purchase a cup of coffee or a meal in whites-only restaurants. The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court ruling had little impact on Savannah’s largely pro-segregation Board of Education. Black children were relegated to inadequate schools with hand-me-down books and poorly paid teachers.

Forsyth Park, a stunning gem of green lawns and enormous oak trees festooned with garlands of Spanish moss was once off-limits to blacks. Black children could not play on the swings or the expansive fields. Blacks adults could not stop to rest weary feet by the exquisite fountain on steamy summer days, a stone’s throw from the park’s imposing Confederate monument.

We read statistics on lynchings and viewed an authentic Ku Klux Clan robe. I noted the carefully stitched buttons, wondering whose hands produced this expression of hatred, embodied in cloth. We saw remnants of a fabric-draped cross, dipped in kerosene and lit to burn fear into residents’ hearts.

We learned that blacks—with help from some sympathetic whites—practiced peaceful ways of civil disobedience to loosen the shackles of a segregated South. They were prepared to act in a non-violent manner, even if beaten, spit upon and, in some cases, splattered with condiments while striving to integrate whites-only lunch counters.

Broughton Street is a main shopping district in Old Savannah, an architecturally and culturally vibrant part of the city. Storefronts are populated with hip national and local stores selling high-end clothing and housewares, chocolates and artisanal foods. A closer look reveals former names of the stores, in some cases, emblazoned in the brickwork up above newer signs for places like The Gap and Urban Outfitters. I’d noted these older names—Kress and Levy’s—on my early morning runs down Broughton.

What I learned in the Gilbert Museum was that the now-defunct Kress was a department store with a lunch counter that did not serve blacks. I wonder about the many other storefronts. Although blacks were allowed to shop at white-owned stores, they were not allowed to work sales counters or eat in the restaurants.

In a stunning show of solidarity, black residents of Savannah boycotted Broughton Street businesses from March 1960 to June 1961. They turned in their credit cards to Levy’s Department Store, traded clothing at church and supported smaller black-owned businesses. Savannah’s white retailers reported a 6 percent drop in sales during the boycott. Store owners eventually bowed to economic pressure.

Small improvements led to broader reforms towards achieving racial equality. Savannah experienced incremental integration—without riots—in advance of passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

When Martin Luther King, Jr., visited Savannah on Jan. 1, 1964, he declared the city to be, “the most integrated city south of the Mason Dixon Line.”

Conversation with a Gilbert Museum staffer reminded me that, although significant strides have been realized, there is still work to be done…in Georgia, in Vermont, in America.

Katherine Bielawa Stamper, a Williston resident, is a former finalist for the Coolidge Prize for Journalism for writings on civility. Reader comments are welcome at Editor@willistonobserver.com or LittleDetailsCol@yahoo.com