Taking a cue from Atlanta’s High Museum on the under-valued historical impact of house museums in black communities, Savannah can lead the way to a more authentic and equitable preservation and promotion of local art and museum history by installing a public historical marker at the site of the Kiah House Museum.

Article by Robbie S. Leave a comment below to add your own words of support.

My introduction to Savannah happened as so many do – as a tourist. I have walked most inches of historic downtown, explored Cuyler-Brownsville and wandered out to Pooler. I have watched the cargo ships up close, seen a musical at the Savannah Theater, searched for geo cache surprises, heard live bands at the Riverfront and eaten more fried foods than I should have. I have visited most of the art and house museums, including the Beach Institute where I met Dr. Deborah Johnson-Simon, the force behind the Campaign to Save the Kiah House Museum building

After one discussion with Dr. D, I was hooked. The life of the Kiahs, their contribution to art, education, Civil Rights and the community and their remarkable home-museum were the stuff of inspiration. When I learned that I could put my business experience to work for the great cause of helping raise awareness and funding for the crumbling site, I was in!

What started out as a vacation is now a multiple trip per year relationship with the town, thanks to the Campaign. I was introduced to new friends and organizations. I found a passion for historical restoration and museum studies. I came to crave learning more about the complicated, often brutal history of blacks in Savannah that’s largely buried behind the beautifully restored facades of the downtown. I became curious about the Kiahs.

The Kiahs were exceptional in their time, rare in their context, nationally known and yet local in their impact. She was a locally important enough artist for SCAD to offer her an honorary degree and to hold many of her pieces in its permanent collection yet nationally renowned enough to exhibit at the U.S. Capitol. He founded the Education program at Savannah’s HBCU at a time of historical increase in black educational leadership. They built one of the first black-operated museums out of their home where they welcomed visitors of all types, from the neighborhood kids to Rosa Parks.

There is a growing focus in the art world on places like this – house museums – especially among folk, black and indigenous artists whose art was not allowed to flourish during segregation. As Kiah herself would often say, these house museums were created as a mechanism for display and engagement in art when the doors of mainstream institutions were closed to non-whites. That the Kiahs created a museum in Savannah, that it flourished and was documented nationally in its time is remarkable.

The city of Atlanta seems to be catching on to this historical value. Last September I visited a celebrated exhibit at the city’s High Museum called “The Radical Art of Nellie Mae Rowe”. This exhibit showcased a house museum much like the Kiahs created. Rowe was a black artist who, after decades in service to Atlanta’s middle class white families, began painting full time and opened her home to visitors from around the world.

Unfortunately, after her death in 1982 the house was demolished and the area redeveloped. But, after all this time there is newfound awareness that the legacy of Rowe and others like her, like the Kiahs, is not only worth resurfacing but is critical to preserve as we continue to make strides in inclusive art collecting, historical accuracy and historic preservation. Better late than never, the High Museum and the city of Atlanta are re-interpreting just how important and monumental Rowe and her house museum truly were in their time, to her local black community and to the broader history of Atlanta’s art community.

What can Savannah learn from Atlanta’s example? Savannah has long been a leader in architectural preservation, art and design. Now is the time to expand that leadership to preserving and promoting the history, art and architecture of black and other marginalized communities. Erecting a historical monument at the Kiah site would be a great start. While the application for an official historical marker for the Kiah building was rejected twice by the Georgia Historical Society, a privately funded marker may be able to achieve similar ends and inspire similar future efforts across Savannah.

Thanks to the passion and generosity of locals and tourists alike, the Campaign to Save Kiah House already has the funding to buy and install a private marker. If approved to go on public lands by the City of Savannah, this marker will help to acknowledge the impact of the lives and property of Virginia and Calvin Kiah. If approved, this marker will help ensure future conversation among locals and visitors about the contribution of blacks to local art and museum history. Most of all, this marker has the potential to spark a broader city-wide focus on preserving and promoting historical locations of importance to black, brown and indigenous communities. 

This opportunity comes at a truly unique time when museum institutions and local governments are actively considering how to ensure the authentic and equitable preservation and presentation of historical sites. This is a time for vision and leadership and if any city can lead the way, it’s Savannah.

8 thoughts on “In Support of a Kiah House Historical Marker

  1. Deborah Johnson-Simon says:

    Did you know that in 1983 Virginia Kiah was listed in the World Biographical Hall of Fame? The entry credits her with being an educator, graphic artist, painter, writer, Museum Founder-Director, Traveling Show Organizer, and one of the few artists of today who has majored in portraiture. They said she was affiliated with the following institutions: Pi Lambda Theta Honor Society; The Museum of Negro History and Art, Boston, MA; National Conference of Artists; DuSable Museum, Chicago, IL; Savannah 36th Street Civic Improvement Association; Georgia Historical Society; and the Coastal Museum Association of Georgia.
    I find it interesting that her affiliation with the Georgia Historical Society, that she proudly acknowledged her membership in the 1980s, would be the very same organization that would twice deny an application for a historical marker for this celebrated artist and museum founder in 2020 and 2021. However, the African Diaspora Museology Institute, (ADMI) has applied to the City of Savannah for a historical marker to honor the legacy of the Kiah’s and the Kiah Museum. This organization researches and supports Black museums worldwide and is based in Savannah and fully supports a historical marker for the Kiah Museum.
    Thank You
    Dr. Deborah Johnson-Simon

  2. Brandee Bolton says:

    The importance of the Kiah house cannot be stressed enough given it’s cultural contributions to the Savannah area and beyond. Since moving to the area, I was unaware of Virginia Kiah’s contributions to the art society of Savannah until I met Dr. Johnson-Simon. However, how would we know of Mrs. Kiah’s contributions if it wasn’t for Dr. Johnson-Simon? A Historical Market will ensure that her story and contributions remains alive.

  3. Jennifer West says:

    Tonight, I heard a story about Virginia Kiah as an art teacher that touched me deeply. When she was teaching art in Savannah, she would not tell her students they were doing something wrong. She told them they were doing art their way, and she might make a suggestion to help them achieve their vision better. She recognized the gifts that each student had, just like we all have a special set of gifts. The Kiahs used their gifts to make Savannah a better place, and it is beyond time to show appreciation for what the Kiahs did. I look forward to hearing that the City of Savannah approved the marker. I especially look forward to the celebration when it is installed because it will represent the hard work of ADMI and Dr. Johnson-Simon.

  4. Eric P Curl says:

    I am writing to offer my support for the historic marker recognizing the significant contributions of the Kiah’s and the community museum’s place among Savannah’s landmarks. Dr. Johnson-Simon’s and her organization’s dedication deserves immense credit for ensuring this important aspect of the city’s history is not lost. Approving the marker will be a well-deserved recognition of that hard work. Hopefully, the city council’s support may also help spur the resolution of 20-year-old probate case that has prevented the Kiah museum’s restoration before the deteriorating structure is beyond saving. – Eric Curl, Savannah, Ga.

  5. Servant Emannuel Branch says:

    Shalom family. I, for one, am in 100% support of having a Historical Marker in honor of one our many unsung sheroes — Virginia Kiah. She was a visionary on so many levels. She lived up to her divine calling as she stood up against racism, segregation, white supremacy and white privilege that was determined to continue a system that devalued and robbed African Americans of all sense of worthiness. Mrs. Kiah worked to ensure that the value that is inherent in all human beings be instilled and nurtured in her own people just other ethnic groups curate their own history, legacy, and contribution to the human family. Our history is just as important. Virginia Kiah knew that “Black Lives Mattered, Too.” What would make the Georgia Historical Society decide against a Historical Marker for the many contributions made by Virginia Kiah is unconscionable. Nevertheless, I commend Dr. Deborah Johnson-Simon for her hard work and determination in ensuring that the legacy of Virginia Kiah no longer remain in the shadows of historical invisibility. I thank Dr. Johnson-Simon for laying a rock solid foundation in resurrecting the work, life, and value of the Kiah Museum, which other groups are now awakening to notice. May we all remember that it was the divine vision given to Dr. Deborah Johnson-Simon that got the Virginia Kiah ball rolling. Lastly, my message to Dr. Johnson-Simon, “Stay the course; and know you are not alone in this.” 1Luv. Servant Emannu’el Branch– BHBP Institute.

  6. Shari Goins says:

    I would like to express my support for the historical marker honoring Mrs. Virginia Kiah. Preserving the history of African Americans is of great importance. We are living in times where our history is being discarded. In order to learn more culturally we must preserve our history for future generations and to honor our well deserving ancestors. Thank you Dr. D for your contributions to keep our culture alive.

  7. Tina Hicks says:

    I stand in Support of an Historical Maker in honor of the Kiah Museum. I had the pleasure of learning the story of the Kiah Museum from Dr. Deborah Johnson-Simon when she visited the Hudson Hill Golden Age Center. Little did I know Mrs. Kiah’s students attend not only Hudson Hill Golden Age Center, but several other Golden Age Center’s. Listening to stories from her former students from the community centers, and from the Cyluer-Brownville Neighborhood,I relies the impact the Kiah Museum has had and still have on the Savannah Community. I learned that one of Mrs. Kiah’s famous statements ” Art is in Everything” has changed the way her students view the world, even me. I am thankful for Dr. Kiah and Mrs. Kiah’s courage in the face of great struggle to create the power of seeing the world in the form of art. Because of the legacy of the Kiah Museum those of us who are not fine art artist have presented the art of quilting and storytelling to the Savannah Community. If you stand on the sidewalk in front of the Kiah Museum many passing by will tell you a story of visiting the museum. The Museum is still impacting the neighborhood. Let’s put a historical marker there to continue the legacy of Dr. Kiah and Mrs. Kiah

  8. Imani Mtendaji says:

    I am most elated that the Kiah Art Museum will bear a marker of commemorative honor and that the building and it’s legacy will prevail…Thanks to the hard work and painstaking efforts of Dr. Deborah Johnson-Simon who took “The Bull By The Horns” and is still forging this important establishment to completion…

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