Today, the Beach Institute African-American Cultural Center in downtown Savannah is Savannah’s flagship museum and gallery for African American art, history and culture. Their exhibits and artistic and educational programs are part of an ongoing effort to collect, interpret, preserve and present African American history. But when their doors first opened in 1867, it was as the first school for African Americans built in Savannah after Emancipation.
A Georgia state law was passed in 1770, forbidding anyone from teaching slaves until 1865. On December 21, 1864, General Sherman ended his March to the Sea with the capture of the port of Savannah. He came with the news that all African American slaves were to be set free, and then he gave Savannah to Abraham Lincoln as a Christmas present.
In 1865, a meeting was held at the First African Baptist Church to discuss how the freed slaves were going to educate their community. Leaders of dying African American churches remained behind after the meeting to discuss the organization of schools for the children in their communities. Together, they formed the Savannah Education Association (SEA). With funding from the community and assistance from Northern Education Aide Societies, the SEA provided free education for African American students. With the help of the American Missionary Association the Freedmen’s Bureau, the Beach Institute was built in 1867.
The school was named in honor of inventor and editor of Scientific American Alfred Ely Beach, who was a benefactor of the school. Now operated by the King-Tisdell College Foundation, the Beach Institute hosts award-winning exhibitions celebrating African-American art.
The Beach Institute is located at 502 E. Harris Street. For admission rates and hours, visit www.beachinstitute.org or call (912) 335-8868.