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Portrait of a people
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The legacy of W.W. Law lives on. President of the Savannah branch of the NAACP for 26 years, Law was one of the most active crusaders in Savannah’s civil rights movement, instrumental in the founding of the Beach Institute, the King-Tisdell Cottage Foundation and the Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum.

Law also was a historian who fought to preserve African-American historic sites in Savannah. He wanted others to share his enthusiasm, so in 1977, he began the Negro Heritage Trail Tour.

“It was his attempt to incorporate the history of African Americans in Savannah in ways that the people living in Savannah and the tourists would come to appreciate,” says King-Tisdell Foundation board member Dr. Annette Brock. “When it was first started, he became known for his skills as a tour guide. He was very engaging in what he was doing.”

The tour put into perspective the role of African Americans in historic Savannah. Law knew residents and visitors alike had much to learn.

“He also got a lot of people to come in as guest guides,” Brock says. “People who came to the city were intrigued by the tour name.”

One of those visitors was Gwendolyn Fortson-Waring. “I was visiting Savannah when I saw the bus,” she says. “I immediately called and took the tour. “

The tour continued to grow in popularity. “This was one way many people in the city entertained guests,” Brock says.

“Churches took groups on the tours. Schools sent students. It was very popular with people in the city.”

But eventually the van that was used to transport visitors broke down and could no longer be repaired. “There were logistical issues and other problems,” says Sarah Todd, associate director for the King-Tisdell Cottage Foundation.

“The volunteers and leadership of the King-Tisdell Cottage Foundation have been looking for ways to get the tour going again,” Todd says. “We’ve been able to purchase a 25-passenger van. The tour has been updated and retooled.”

With the assistance of Morningstar Cultural Arts, the foundation was able to get a Grassroots Art Program through the City of Savannah’s Department of Cultural Affairs. The tour began running in April, and plans are under way to add a virtual tour to supplement the present tour.

Monitors will be placed on the van so that participants can view video clips, photographs and other media to transport them back in time. “We’re really excited about it because it is something that will be unique in Savannah,” Todd says.

Because of the virtual tour, visitors will get a peek inside places they wouldn’t see otherwise. “If we’re going to look at 30 sites, we’re going to drive by them,” Todd says.

The filming has already been done. “Ron Higgins oversaw the filming,” Todd says. “Ron is also the tour manager. He wears several hats.

“We’re adding some additional shots,” she says. “We’re also in the process of purchasing LCD panels to install on the bus. It will be totally unlike anything offered in Savannah to this point.”

One example of the types of things that will be shown is the interior of the Owens-Thomas carriage house, which once was used to house slaves. “We can give them a flavor of it, even though it’s not included on our tour,” Todd says.

“It also allows us to paint a picture of places that had their heyday 40 or 50 years ago, buildings that aren’t there anymore,” she says. “We can show everyone before and after shots of the Carnegie Library renovation. It adds such a dimension.”

The monitors also will allow the inclusion of sites that cannot be visited, for whatever reason. “Some people ask about the King-Tisdell Cottage,” Todd says. “It is under renovation, so it is not open at the present time.

“People are very enthused by the cottage because of its Victorian gingerbread appearance,” she says. “Once it is open, we will re-interpret the scope and focus of the museum.”

Brock says the monitors will allow the tour to run, no matter what. “There might be inclement weather,” she says. “It is an enhancement to the tour.”

Public response to the return of the Negro Heritage Trail Tour has been “very positive,” Todd says. “People are excited to see the tour come back,” she says.

“This is not the only African-American-focused tour in town, which is wonderful,” Todd says. “Ours is probably the only one that is non-profit based.”

People are always surprised once they take the tour. “For one thing, people are just so taken by the fact they can come to Savannah and take this type of tour,” Todd says.

“Second, the scope of the tour is a real surprise,” she says. “People don’t realize how many things are included in the tour.

“The early years of the colony are covered,” Todd says. “They learn how slavery was illegal, but people got around that by leasing slaves from South Carolina.

“We take them to River Street,” she says. “Savannah was not a prominent slave port, but some slave ships stopped here.”

The tour always stops at the Beach Institute for a tour of the museum there. “They see the Ulysses Davis Collection,” Todd says.

This astonishing collection consists of 238 sculptures, the work of one man over a 50-year period. “Ulysses Davis was a barber by trade and did what whittling he could when he wasn’t working,” Todd says.

Davis, who was born in Savannah in 1913 and died in 1990, was an artistic genius. His work includes carved portraits, realistic and mythical animals and beings and elaborate boxes.

Art collectors and dealers often begged Davis to sell his work, but he refused, telling them “They are part of me.”

The sheer scope of the collection and the variety of subjects is astonishing. “He was incredibly prolific,” Todd says. “His work was shown in many museums while he was alive.”

The Davis Collection is a permanent fixture, but the Beach Institute also features exhibits that are brought in from museums all over the country.

Beginning July 17, Etched in the Eyes will open. This is a photojournalism exhibit of 25 framed photographs, a video presentation and artifacts showcasing Gullah/Geechee culture by artist Dave Herman.

The building that houses the institute is itself worth a look. “The Beach Institute was built after the Civil War so that African Americans could receive an education,” Todd says.

“It was built in 1867 by Alfred Beach, an inventor and the editor of Scientific American. It was the first school opened in Savannah specifically for the education of African Americans after the abolition of slavery,” she says.

“Six hundred students were initially enrolled,” Todd says. “In 1874, it was turned over to the Savannah Board of Education and became part of the public school system. It was closed in 1919.”

The building was given to the foundation by the Savannah College of Art and Design. “It was the community’s cultural center in the 1960s and 70s,” Todd says. “There were meetings here, and they had classes and church services.”

Today, in addition to the art exhibits, the Beach Institute hosts workshops and classes. It also is the setting for a concert series called Cool Nights at the Beach and several special events.

“We had An African-American Christmas Celebration here during the holidays,” Todd says. “We are really trying to utilize the building as a cultural center.”

Proceeds from the tours will help support the programs at the Beach Institute.

“We’re proud and pleased to have it open again,” Brock says. “These types of tours enhance a city. The more you know about all its people, the better you know the community.”

Fortson-Waring also is excited that the tour has returned. “I’ve been on both sides of this, as a tourist who had never been to Savannah and took the tour, and as a board member,” she says.

“It was always W.W. Law’s mission to study and advance the African-American history of Savannah,” Fortson-Waring says. “Before he died, he was still trying to raise money for historic markers. Savannah is so rich in African-American history.”

Although not all the money has been secured to purchase the monitors for the tour bus, it will happen, Fortson-Waring says.

“We’re very close to getting sponsors,” she says. “With the monitors, we can go to the First African Baptist Church and also to the First Bryan Baptist Church. They can take time at their leisure to go back. We give them a morsel and a tease,” ,” Fortson-Waring says.

“Our tour guide is a native of Savannah. so he is versed in local folklore,” Fortson-Waring says. “I would really love to see more local people taking the tour. If more locals would take the tour, they would be so proud of their heritage.”

Fortson-Waring moved to Savannah after taking that tour, and she has never regretted it. “I met a 9-year-old boy who asked me what I did,” she says. “When I told him I was a lawyer, he asked, ‘Why do you live in Savannah?’

“I said, ‘Because it’s the most beautiful city in the world.’” Fortson-Waring says. w

The Negro Heritage Trail Tour: An African American Journey, is conducted Monday through Saturday at noon and 2 p.m. To reserve a seat, call 234-8000.