1204 Martin Luther King Jr Boulevard

Savannah, GA 31415-6355

A Hard Road to Freedom : The NAACP in Savannah

By Charles Lwanga Hoskins

This brief sketch of the NAACP in Savannah begins in 1915. Undaunted by the Sunday Men's Club collapsed attempt to ameliorate the social and educational plight of blacks in Savannah, Professor Miken I. Pope, of the Georgia State College for Colored Youth, wrote Dr. Edward Dubois seeking information about the work of the national NAACP. His group took no further action. Around this time, the authorities planned to move the Red Light district to Yamacraw. In that day, Yamacraw housed some 788 black and 33 white families. A Committee of Nine, composed of three members from the Ministers' Union, three from the Urban League, and three from an aspiring NAACP group, decided to oppose the transfer of the district to Yamacraw. In July of 1917, James Weldon Johnson, field Secretary of the NAACP came to Savannah, and after clearly explaining the goal and methodology of the organization, established a branch with 68 members and installed Joseph C. Lindsay, an insurance company manager as president. Within months, Lindsay resigned and Dr. Fannin Belcher, the vice-president, became president.

City Council's retreat on the Red Light district matter enhanced the stock of the Belcher years. Dr. Belcher served for a few years. Blacks however, continued to contend with inadequate educational opportunities, economic discrimination, and unjust treatment in the penal system and on the chain gang. The branch elected E. F. Smalls president in 1924; Donald Thomas followed him in 1930. Five years later, the first female Mrs. Zelda M. DesVerney became president. Within months, Thomas J. Hopkins succeeded her and shortly thereafter, the national NAACP pulled the branch's charter due to inactivity. Dr. Joseph Jenkins and Clark A. Tyree attempted to revive the branch but to no avail.

In 1938, the Rev. Dr. Ralph Mark Gilbert came to Savannah to stage a play as a fundraiser for the Colored P.T.A., and conducted a revival at First African Baptist Church. Both events turned out to be very successful and, lacking a pastor, the church called Rev. Gilbert as their pastor. Dr. Gilbert soon reorganized the moribund NAACP branch and got involved with the West Broad Street YMCA, a USO headquarters for colored troops, and the establishment of the Greenbriar home. In February 1942, Dr. Gilbert, serving as temporary chair, called an organizational mass meeting at his church. On March 13, over one hundred persons attended, more than twice the number required by the national office, and elected Arthur J. Clement president. After less than two months, Clement resigned and the body elected Dr. Gilbert president. They also elected Dr. Stephen McDew, vice-president, while Walter S. Scott treasurer, and John S. Delaware secretary, both kept their offices.

Incredibly, Dr. Gilbert was still somehow, able to maintain a full schedule of pastoral duties soon adding about 1,000 new members to the church and making several improvements to the structure. He continued writing and producing plays, which used some 56 characters and a mass choir of 200 persons. The latter activity gained Dr. Gilbert much visibility, popularity and above all influence, in the black community. In 1945, the Primus King case opened up the white primaries to blacks and the NAACP, the Hub and others used the election of Mayor John Kennedy to demonstrate their political muscle. The appointment of black police officers soon followed. A few blacks opposed Gilbert's activity, especially the Rev. Conner, Paul Steele, Grover Banks, and the Rev. Louis Scott. Undaunted, Dr. Gilbert continued and within a few years, the branch reached 3,000 members. He increased the number of branches in Georgia and served as state president. The election of governor Talmadge had a devastating effect on the NAACP. By 1948, the membership fell to 695 and one year later, it plunged to 203. The youth council which had 700 members in 1946 dropped to 66 in 1947. Financial pressures, work overload, and waning support wore out Dr. Gilbert. He resigned in 1950.

The mantle next fell on the shoulders of a 27-year-old mail carrier, the youngest NAACP president in the country, Westley Wallace Law. A Gilbert protégé and former president of the youth council, Law soon found his stride. Ozzie Jones, a black man accused of raping a white woman sought assistance from the branch. Dentist Philip W. Cooper headed his defense fund. The authorities eventually executed Jones and the NAACP's stock fell. In February 1954, Law launched his first assault on the Board of Education in pursuit of desegregated education. Law, NAACP Attorney Frank A. Dilworth, Walter S. Scott, and Prof. C. L. Harper attended a State Board of Education meeting, uninvited. As the Savannah Tribune recorded, that this was the first time a Negro delegation has gone before the state education group.

In 1960, it fell to Law to galvanize the energy of the youths and to line up the financial resources of the elders to bond out those arrested for participating in the 15-month business boycott of downtown Savannah. Attorneys Eugene H. Gadsden and Bobby Clarence Mayfield defended all the accused. Law also tried to improve housing for blacks and fought against police brutality. President Law withstood a challenge for his presidency by Dr. Carl R. Jordon who received 93 votes to Law's 500. Over the years, most Jim Crow impediments fell away and blacks won political elections, and appointments to boards. Law stepped down in 1976.

Dr. Curtis V. Cooper, the vice-president, became president. He was man of the year at Savannah State College in 1955; chair of the branch's youth council and in 1962, the NAACP honored him for his courageous leadership in the Savannah Freedom Now Movement. Cooper, though challenged several times for the presidency during his 24 years of service, survived. In 1985, he defeated Esther Garrison by 232 to 142 votes. The federal case, Stell vs. Board of Education, begun in 1962, ended on his watch. In 1989, a mail bomb killed NAACP attorney, Robbie Robinson in his office. Cooper died in 2000.

Slowly but surely, over the years, the tide had changed. It was always difficult, in the best of times, to keep black folks in a struggle mode. In our day, many have become comfortable and complacent because of the social, political, and legal advancements, the NAACP and other groups have gained. Some of us suffer from struggle fatigue, or apathy. However, thank God, we yet have had warriors, as former president Bill Jackson, the late President, Dr. Prince Jackson, who, defied the odds, and kept the torch of freedom's pursuit alight. God alone knows the personal burden that recent presidents Gilbert, Law, Cooper, Bill Jackson, and Prince Jackson carried, as they tried to earn a living and run the local branch of the NAACP, an unpaid position in a financially indigent institution. History calls on each of us, as heirs of an incredible Savannah patrimony, to snatch the baton and run the portion of this ancestral race set before us.