Westley Wallace Law made an incredible impact on Savannah. His name is one many Savannahians may be familiar with, but the scope of his contributions to the city’s history and culture is more nuanced and far-reaching than perhaps people realize.
“Law and Preservation: Celebrating the Legacy of W.W. Law in Historic Preservation” is a series of events that will highlight and celebrate Law’s various contributions to the social and historical fabric of Savannah. The events will take place over the course of next week, Sept. 19-23, and will include a panel discussion, a driving tour, a walking tour, the launch of an online exhibition and the dedication of a historical marker commemorating the Savannah protest movement as part of the Georgia Civil Rights Trail.
“A lot of people are familiar with W.W. Law’s work in the civil rights movement, but may not be as familiar with his historic preservation work, so we thought this was a good opportunity to raise more awareness about that,” explains Luciana Spracher, director of Savannah’s Research Library & Municipal Archives, the main organizer of the week’s events.
The week begins with a panel discussion Sept. 19 co-hosted by the Historic Savannah Foundation: “W.W. Law’s Influence on Today’s Preservation Landscape in Savannah.” Panelists include the founder of the Downtown Neighborhood Association and the Downtown Business Association, Richard “Dicky” Mopper; past chair of the Historic Savannah Foundation’s Board of Trustees and Savannah Historic District Board of Review, W. John Mitchell; and African American Program Coordinator for the Georgia Historic Preservation Division and liaison to the Georgia African American Preservation Network, Melissa Jest.
Sept. 20 will feature a Freedom Trail Driving Tour led by Johnnie Brown that will include “sites impacted by W.W. Law’s historic preservation leadership, including Laurel Grove South Cemetery, Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum, King-Tisdell Cottage and the Beach Institute.”
On Sept. 21, guests can take a Beach Institute Historic Neighborhood Walking Tour guided by Beth Reiter, former director of historic preservation planning at the Metropolitan Planning Commission, that will cover “the historic origins of the Beach Institute neighborhood and its architecture, including African Americans who owned and/or occupied houses.”
Sept. 22 will see the launch of a new online exhibit culled from Law’s private collection, which will include photographs, personal and professional correspondence and various awards Law received throughout his lifetime. This collection is particularly noteworthy due to the fact that it’s never been accessible to the public previously.
When Law died in 2002, his extensive collection of art, music, photographs, personal papers and NAACP documents (where he was acting president of the Savannah chapter from 1950-76) went to his foundation, where they were held for a number of years. Organizing Law’s voluminous collection proved to be such a herculean task that the foundation eventually donated the collection to the city in 2014, where staff has been assiduously cataloging and processing the artifacts ever since. The launch of the online exhibition represents the first substantial phase of making Law’s collection accessible to the public. It can be accessed by going to www.savannahga.gov/wwlaw.
Finally, on Sept. 23 there will be a dedication ceremony hosted by the Georgia Historical Society for a historical marker memorializing the Savannah protest movement and the efforts to end segregation in Savannah. The marker will be unveiled at SCAD’s Jen Library on Broughton Street, which is the former site of the Azalea Room in Levy’s Department Store, a locus of the movement that was the focus of many boycotts and sit-ins.
The week’s events correspond with the 50th anniversary of Savannah’s designation as a National Historic Landmark (other events are slated throughout the year). Even if you don’t attend any of the events, be sure to go online and at least take a peek at what’s there.
“This is a great time in this anniversary year to take a moment to stop and reflect on Mr. Law’s contributions to our community,” says Spracher. “It’s been 14 years now since he died and there’s a younger generation that doesn’t really know him, so we need to make sure people remember his legacy.”
All events are free and open to the public. Go to savannahga.gov/wwlaw. RSVP to lspracher@savannah ga.gov or 912-651-6411.
“W. W. Law’s Influence on Today’s Preservation Landscape in Savannah: A Panel Discussion”
6 p.m. Sept. 19
Kennedy Pharmacy, 323 E. Broughton St.
Freedom Trail Driving Tour
10 a.m.-noon Sept. 20
Bus departs from Visitor’s Center, 301 MLK Jr. Blvd.
Beach Institute Historic Neighborhood Walking Tour
10-11:30 a.m. Sept. 21
Starts in front of St. John the Baptist Church, 522 Hartridge St. and ends in front of the Beach Institute on East Harris Street
“Law and Preservation,” launch of online exhibit
Sept. 22 at savannahga.gov/wwlaw
Dedication of Savannah Protest Movement Historical Marker
10 a.m. Sept. 23
Trustees Theater, 216 E. Broughton St.
“Remembering the 1960s Civil Rights Movement in Savannah”
1-4 p.m. Sept. 23
Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum, Dr. Priscilla Thomas Annex, 460 MLK Jr. Blvd.