Stop the demolition of The Kiah House
Stop the demolition of The Kiah House
As one of the first black-owned museums in the city, the Kiah house served as a beacon of creativity and community support, linking the neighborhood with the downtown art scene. In the Cuyler-Brownville neighborhood, the Kiah House is apart of our Savannah history.
"I loved art, but i couldn't go to a museum because my skin was black. I told my mother that someday i'd like to have my own museum everybody could go to" - Virginia Kiah
Here is her story:
Virginia Jackson Kiah was born into civil rights royalty in Baltimore. Her mother Lillian Jackson (Ma Jackson) was the matriarchal leader of the Baltimore branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for thirty years. She was also an accomplished artist who studied at the Philadelphia Museum School of Art, becoming the first African American student to win the school’s top award in life drawing. She would continue to study at the Teachers College at Columbia University and earned a master’s degree in 1950. She married Calvin Kiah and moved to Savannah, Georgia, where her husband served as a professor and department chair at Savannah State College.
During this time she taught for thirteen years at Beach High School before she left to work full time as a portrait artist. Her art has been on exhibit at the US Capitol building, Telfair Art Museum, and the SCAD Museum of Art as well as many other places. She also as her mother was active in the Civil Rights Movement.
In 1959 she established Savannah’s Kiah Museum. In 1983 the Smithsonian published its first directory of Blacks in Museums which listed among its pioneer members Mrs. Virginia Jackson Kiah and the Kiah Museum in Savannah. The Museum was started in her home on 505 W. 36th Street in the historic Cuyler Brownsville Neighborhood (but today is closed and the building is in disrepair). An article posted at Savannahnow.com on June20, 2016 reads as follows:
Her collection was not necessarily about ‘this is a black museum,’ but to give people the experience of a Smithsonian museum in the community,” Johnson-Simon said.
“She would mine historic buildings,” she said. For example, Virginia would salvage plaster medallions from ceilings and iron hinges from doors, both representing a time in history.
Virginia also had on display a 15-million-year-old fossil, a Nigerian sculpture, a small engraving by Albrecht Dürer (b.1471, d.1528), elegant Haitian carvings, early American primitive paintings and many of Virginia’s own paintings.’
It was a neighborhood museum to teach the community that felt uncomfortable in what had been traditionally shut off from them.
She also became a founding member of the National Conference of Artists, established at Atlanta University in order to “preserve, promote, inspire, and support African American art and culture through the visual arts.” The NCA is the oldest and largest visual art organization that provides a national and international forum for emerging and established artists of African descent. Numerous chapters are located throughout the country, including Atlanta, Detroit, Chicago, Boston, Birmingham, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Dallas, Los Angeles, and Rochester, New York.
She was an early supporter of the Savannah College of Art and Design and served on its board. For her service SCAD named Kiah Hall the original site of the SCAD Museum of Art after her.
Ms. Kiah was an artist, cultural preservationist, activist, and promoter of artists. She gave those in the Culyer Brownsville neighborhood part of what she had as she grew up. Today different members of the Savannah community are working to preserve the museum she shared with her neighbors. Her life was an act of love delivered with an artistic hand.