1915-1920 CLASS PHOTO
(COURTESY OF HISTORIC SAVANNAH FOUNDATION)
WEST BROAD STREET SCHOOL
At the end of the Civil War, Georgia had no system of funding public education other than its school tax, which assisted poor white children with tuition at private schools. From the late 1860's until well into the twentieth century, many white Georgians sought to limit public funding for black education. Local districts vehemently refused to support public secondary education for black students. Teachers in black schools received lower salaries than those in white schools, regardless of the teacher's race, and the maintenance of black schools was gravely neglected.
It was not until the state made its first effort to create public schools in 1865 that officials discovered the rudiments of a system to educate blacks already in place in an underground network of secret schools.
In 1867 the Catholic Bishop of Savannah, Augustine Verot, was extremely concerned about the education of black children within the community. He sought help from the Sisters of St. Joseph of LePuy, France, who had established a school for black children in Florida. When the Sisters moved to Savannah, they first created the Barry Male Orphan Asylum at Perry and Floyd streets and organized a school for young white boys. Soon the Sisters invited black children to attend the school as well. Within two years the Sisters were in need of a different location and schoolhouse. In 1870 Bishop Verot bought Scarbrough House from the estate of Margaret O'Byrne and proceeded to convert the mansion into a schoolhouse run by the Catholic Diocese. For several years the Sisters taught young children and also opened a night school for adults who were once enslaved.
In December of 1872 an agreement was made between St. Stephen's Episcopal Church, a black parish, and the Savannah Board of Education to lease the church's rectory for $300 per year to be used as a school for black children. Less than a year later a fire destroyed the rectory, prompting the board of education to lease the vacated Scarbrough House for $600 per year.
At Scarbrough House James Porter, the first principal, and his staff created a model school. Despite a well-publicized lack of funding from the state, Porter forged ahead with his vision for the future, and the 1875 school year began with 231 students, of which 229 attended the end-of-year closing exercises. (see early years at WBSS)
In 1878 public-spirited philanthropist George W.J. DeRenne purchased Scarbrough House for $4,500. He immediately deeded the house to the City of Savannah-Board of Public Education. The deed specifically stated that the purpose of the property was "to educate the children of African descent" in the fundamentals of reading, writing and mathematics. His empathy was evident in the wording of the deed when DeRenne alluded to African-Americans who "came among us not of their own motion nor for their own gain, and that they have, as a people, been faithful." The document also addressed the care and condition of the facility. It was the utmost importance that the board of education maintain the property or it would revert to his heirs.
Finally, with the official endorsement of the board of education, the little school at Scarbrough House became known as West Broad Street School. By this time the original staircase in the entrance hall had been replaced with a massive new metal structure intended for institutional use. Grades one through eight were taught under the expert guidance of the new principal James Butler. Reaching beyond the suggestions put forward in DeRenne's deed, Butler was soon offering vocational training to assist students in practical careers.
The school would also become recognized for its theater program, which most likely inspired the young Savannah resident Adrienne Herndon to pursue a career in the arts. Perhaps the most successful and well-known West Broad Street School alumna, Herndon would later graduate from Atlanta University in 1890 and the School of Dramatic Arts in New York in 1908. She became a drama teacher at Atlanta University where she taught Shakespeare. But due to racial exclusions in the American theatre she had no opportunities to perform on the legitimate stage. Undaunted, Herndon continued to act in black theatrical circuits, teach, and participate in community service until her untimely death at 40 years of age from Addison's disease. One of her lasting legacies is the Herndon House in Atlanta. Untrained in architecture, she nevertheless designed a fifteen-room home for her family that is open to the public and has been designated a National Historic Landmark.
From the beginning, West Broad Street School was plagued by lack of funding for upkeep and adequate space for its students. Every year hundreds of children were turned away due to a dearth of space. At the beginning of the twentieth century the school averaged 600-800 students with only one teacher for each of the eight grades. Despite the overcrowding, according to newspaper accounts students did as well or better than their white counterparts in every subject except handwriting. This may be attributed to the lack of desks that required many students to sit on the floor to write on paper.
Under political pressure from the black community, the board of education was finally forced to build a classroom annex in 1889. Constructed at the back entrance of Scarbrough House where the present-day pavilion stands, the annex was a much-needed four-room structure for first and second grade students.
By the 1920's Scarbrough House was again showing serious signs of neglect. Although the original benefactor George W.J. DeRenne died in 1916, his grandson Wymberly W. DeRenne, kept vigil over the terms of the original deed that mandated the continued upkeep of the property. In a letter to the board of education dated January 28, 1925, citing the dismal condition of the building, he wrote with great concern that his grandfather's charitable contribution was not being respected. "Our grandfather's wishes in regard to this gift should be observed," he declared. "It is not only our duty to see them carried out but it is also our very earnest and lively desire from a sense of historic interest and civic pride to have the building preserved exactly as our grandfather directed. Even the most casual inspection will show the terrible and dilapidated state of the building. Its condition is a mock to Mr. DeRenne's desire that the building be preserved."
The board of education reluctantly made the necessary repairs to the property to accommodate the growing school.
By 1930 the half-acre site of West Broad Street School consisted of ten classrooms in the main house and four in the annex. The principal floor of the mansion was used for classrooms and a large wood-working shop for vocational training. A cafeteria was located in the basement, and additional classrooms were deployed on the second and third floors. Outside, down the back staircase, were restrooms and a long metal trough-style drinking fountain.
During this period West Broad Street School also offered its students varied extracurricular activities, among them a Glee Club, Christmas celebrations, and May Day and Halloween festivities with costume-making. First graders were taught how to create and maintain flower gardens, and third graders took pride in developing the idea of a country store.
The 1950's would mark a pivotal era not only for West Broad Street School, but also for the board of education, the city of Savannah, and the United States. In 1954 in the case of Brown vs. Board of Education, the Supreme Court ruled that segregation of children in public school solely on the basis of race deprives them of equal education opportunities. When Savannah was slow to implement desegregation following the Court's ruling, local black community organizers began to put pressure on the board of education. In the end the demand to desegregate coupled with the chronically bad condition of Scarbrough House led to the closing of West Broad Street School in 1962.
The students were transferred to nearby Barnard Street School amid a fury of controversy, and Scarbrough House was put to use as a storage facility for several years before it reverted to George W.J. DeRenne's heirs.
In the late 1960's there were several attempts to restore the house with limited success. Historic Savannah Foundation took on the challenge in 1972 and made major improvements to the building including the removal of the third story and the institutional staircase. From 1972 to 1976 Scarbrough House was used for preservation activities. And in 1996 Ships of the Sea Museum (on River Street since 1966) purchased the property to house its collection and painstakingly restored the mansion to its former glory.