SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) — The Massie Heritage Center dates back to 1856. That’s when it opened as a school in Savannah’s Calhoun Square downtown.

It was the first public school to be part of the first public school system in the South.

The school was named for Peter Massie.

“He came to town a lot in the 1830s. His bank was here,” says Steven Smith, curator. “He owned a plantation in Brunswick and he saw all the poor kids roaming the streets with nothing to do. Public school wasn’t a mandate so he donated the money.”

Smith said the original students were likely of Irish descent and there were 150 students during the first semester.

In 1865, the Union Army used the school as a Civil War hospital and after the war, newly-freed African American girls attended school there. Eventually, it returned to operating as a neighborhood school.

Fast forward to the 1970s, the building was closed to students because it needed too much work. Shortly afterward, a group of local people got together and formed the group, “Friends of Massie.”

“They did a lot of research on heritage education which was real popular in places like England at that time,” said Smith. “With the whole idea of place-based education, they were way ahead of their time (in America).”

The idea was to take students out of the classroom and use community resources to enhance what kids were learning in schools. That’s how they pitched it to the school board and it’s been a heritage center since 1978.

To this day, Massie offers programs from kindergarten to 8th grade that enhance the classroom curriculum about the history of Savannah.