SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) — A local museum anthropologist has launched a new fundraiser in hopes of salvaging the deteriorating site of one of the city’s first Black-founded museums.
The abandoned former Kiah House Museum — which opened in 1959 at the home of Savannah State professor Dr. Calvin Kiah and his wife, Virginia — continues to face the threat of demolition.
Virginia was a public school educator and portrait artist who had dreamed of opening a museum for the masses.
“It was her lifelong dream to have a museum that would be of interest and available to not just African Americans, but everybody,” said Dr. Deborah Johnson-Simon, founder of the African Diaspora Museology Institute.
Johnson-Simon has worked for several years to secure a future for the former museum, located on West 36th Street in the Cuyler-Brownville Historic District.
The Kiah House Museum, which once had notable visitors including Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was recognized in 1974 as one of the Reader’s Digest Treasures of America.
“It was just that beautiful, and that interesting, because it was like a mini-Smithsonian, it had all those different Smithsonian museums wrapped into one space,” Johnson-Simon told WSAV NOW.
Following a successful fundraising effort last year, she recently started a new GoFundMe campaign to raise money toward saving the historic site. This time, the goal is $80,000.
Johnson-Simon and others invested in saving the property have posted regular updates to the campaign page, educating donors about the history of the cherished museum and its former owners.
The 111-year-old building was left in probate following the December 2001 death of Virginia Kiah. Since then, the boarded-up building’s condition has slowly declined, making the site a target for litter and vandalism.
“There’s not a day that we come that somebody hasn’t thrown their cans in there,” said Johnson-Simon.
“The other day when I came out, there was a Bic lighter there, clothes in the fountain and homeless signs out there,” she said, adding, “I’ve gotten calls from neighbors saying, ‘we’re afraid of some of the things we see out there,’ because it doesn’t seem like it’s, you know, lawful activities that are going on.”
She says she and those working to rescue the Kiah House Museum are not trying to do the job of the police.
“We’re trying to raise the funds so we can put up some fencing that will discourage that [activity],” Johnson-Simon said.
In addition to fencing, the new GoFundMe’s money will go toward other types of maintenance, preventing demolition and obtaining city landmark status.
Fundraisers also intend to use the funds to prepare the property for a dedicated buyer to purchase and restore the site.
“There’s not a shortage of people who want it, the shortage is the people who will do the work to get it to the place where they can get it,” Johnson-Simon said.
“We don’t want somebody that’s not preservation-minded and [doesn’t] understand and respect the history because they’re not going to fight for this,” she added.
The Kiah House Museum’s inclusion on the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation’s 2021 Places in Peril list, Johnson-Simon says, will also, hopefully, give the site the exposure it needs to be rescued.
“This is a special program where they help groups and individuals who are trying to save history and culture, like what we’re trying to do here,” she said.
“They have a 16-year history and a wonderful legacy of those who get listed on that list,” she said. “A change happens for them.”
The latest GoFundMe campaign has so far raised more than $4,900 toward rescuing the Kiah House Museum site. View the fundraiser’s page by visiting this link.