Gentrification is occurring all around Savannah, including in the west side community of Cuyler-Brownsville. The area’s streets lined with tidy wooden homes – styles range from Craftsman to Italianate – once housed Savannah’s black movers and shakers. Among its residents was Ralph Mark Gilbert, known as the father of Savannah’s modern civil rights movement, who lived at 611 West 36th Street and hosted such leaders as Martin Luther King Jr., Marian Anderson and Thurgood Marshall during his years as head of the local N.A.A.C.P. and pastor of First African Baptist Church.
Evidence of Gilbert’s influence can be found at the museum that bears his name — the Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum, housed in the former black-owned Wage Earners Savings and Loan Bank on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Here, the local civil rights struggle is captured in powerful photographs and interactive exhibits.
A photo of Gilbert himself hangs in the basement archives of the First African Baptist Church on Montgomery Street, which offers a tactile connection to history. Most of its trappings are original to the church, from its light fixtures, baptismal pool and balcony pews, which were built by slaves. The pipe organ came later, in 1832 and installed in 1888. Here, too, are powerful reminders of the pivotal role First African Baptist played as a stop on the Underground Railroad. On the sanctuary ceiling, for example, is the “Nine Patch Quilt” design – a visual code that the church was a safe house for slaves, and a map for helping runaway slaves navigate their way to freedom. A four-foot subfloor beneath the lower auditorium hid slaves as they made their escape.