CATHERINE DEVEAUX HOUSE
HOME WHERE CATHERINE AND HER DAUGHTER JANE SECRETLY TAUGHT ENSLAVED STUDENTS
(LOCATED AT 231 PRICE STREET)
SUSIE KING TAYLOR
EDUCATOR, AUTHOR, AND NURSE.
(COURTESY OF THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS)
A THIRD STORY WAS ADDED TO SCARBROUGH HOUSE IN 1835 AND HEAVILY UTILIZED DURING THE WBSS YEARS.
(COURTESY OF HISTORIC SAVANNAH FOUNDATION)
In 1817 and again in 1839 the Savannah City Council passed increasingly strict ordinances prohibiting anyone from teaching blacks to read and write or to operate a school. In reality these laws were discretely ignored, or a least cleverly sidestepped, with the aid of intentional loopholes in the wording of the ordinances themselves. They did not specifically forbid blacks from learning how to read and write; they simply banned teaching them in an organized school. While it was common knowledge that many black children learned basic reading skills through their play with white children, the real reason for the loopholes in these so-called laws is that they benefited slave owners. Many adult enslaved people were taught to read, write and do basic arithmetic by their masters in order to help with the record keeping of the plantation system.
Since it was illegal to form an organized conglomerate of professionally trained black teachers, the genesis of formal education for blacks took place in small clandestine settings or in the homes of black teachers. One of these pioneering teachers was Julian Fromantin of Haiti who immigrated to Savannah and established a school in 1819. The first known "bearer of the flame," Fromantin openly ran his school for several years until authorities passed increasingly stringent laws to suppress the education of blacks. Not to be deterred, he continued teaching another twenty-five years by using his carpenter's trade and workshop to conceal his activities.
Other courageous teachers who put themselves at risk to help raise the literacy of Savannah's black population included Catherine DeVeaux and her daughter Jane, who secretly taught African-American free and enslaved people in their home at 231 Price Street in the 1830's and continued teaching for almost thirty years; James M. Simms of the First African Baptist Church; Mary Beasley of the Second African Baptist Church; and Mary Woodhouse, a seamstress by trade, from St. Stephen's Episcopal Church, also a black parish. (The building that housed St. Stephen's on Troop Square was originally built for a Unitarian congregation in 1851 and is again the home of the Unitarian Universalist Church). Susie King Taylor, a Civil War nurse, educator and author, learned to read and write in the 1850's at a school on Bay Lane taught by Mary Woodhouse. As a sad footnote to the times, when Taylor walked to school each morning her books had to be wrapped in paper to conceal them from the authorities. Lastly, and most important to the creation of West Broad Street School, there was James Porter.
Born to free blacks in Charleston, Porter was highly educated and a tailor by trade. He was also an exceptionally talented musician and moved to Savannah in 1856 to lead the choir at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church. He soon opened a music school in his home where he taught violin, piano, organ and voice but also secretly taught reading and writing. He eventually installed a trap door in his house so students could flee in case of a raid. James Porter later became the first principal of the A. Bryan Freedman's School in 1865 and, some eight years later, the first principal of West Broad Street School.
By the time General William Tecumseh Sherman occupied Savannah, the existence of underground black schools in the city had been an open secret for decades. Savannah's black activist community greeted the Union troops with enthusiasm, but while Sherman brought promise of federal reform, the activists were determined to control their own destiny. Raising $730 to organize a free school for themselves, the black leadership formed the Savannah Educational Association (SEA) in 1865 and within weeks African-American teachers were openly and legally instructing almost 900 children at A. Bryan and Oglethorpe Schools.
In the spring of 1865 federal authorities, under the guidance of the American Missionary Association (AMA), briefly used Massie School on Calhoun Square for black children in Savannah. A private, Protestant, northern agency intent on contributing to the education of newly freed blacks, the AMA was of tremendous financial help, but its benevolence was based on the conviction that white northern teachers were more qualified to teach than local black teachers. It did not take long before tensions between the two groups began to pull them apart. After a futile struggle to fund its own schools and remain autonomous, the SEA was forced to appeal to the AMA for funding, and the two reluctantly merged in 1867. The first black school these entities joined together to open is the present-day Beach Institute, constructed and paid for by the Freedmen's Bureau, yet another federal agency created to assist newly freed blacks and provide funding to rent school rooms and supply textbooks.
After years of secret and private schooling in Savannah, the City of Savannah-Board of Public Education finally established its first school for black children in St. Stephen's Episcopal Church rectory at Lincoln and Macon streets. But a devastating fire in 1873 destroyed the building, and the board moved the students to William Scarbrough House, launching the West Broad Street School.