Open Tuesday-Saturday. Adult admission $8.
The Beach Institute African American Cultural Center, housed in a former Freedmen’s Bureau school, is the only art museum in Savannah devoted to works by black and African-American artists.
The Institute shows rotating exhibitions of work by African-heritage artists (especially artists from the southeastern states) alongside its permanent collection, the most well-known part of which is a series of 40 carved busts of the American presidents, created by Savannah sculptor Ulysses Davis.
A room of the former schoolhouse, laid out in the style of a historic classroom, represents the building’s past as a place of African-American education.
The highlight of the Beach Institute’s permanent collection is the work of Savannah folk artist Ulysses Davis (1913-1990) and especially, his series of busts of the American presidents.
Davis, who was born in Fitzgerald, GA, moved to Savannah in the 1940s through his job as a railroad blacksmith. With the decline of the railroads, he was obliged to change his profession, setting up a barbershop in Savannah, a skill he had practiced occasionally since his youth.
Another of Davis’s early pursuits was carving, which his new work as barber allowed him plenty of time to indulge in. His shop provided a display space for the dozens of works he produced, many of them carved with the same tools he used as a barber.
The subjects of Davis’s sculptures are varied, ranging from fantastical creatures to African figures to his most famous series: miniature busts of each of the presidents of United States from Washington through to Bush, Sr (the last president to serve during Davis’s lifetime), sculpted in dark mahogany.
Davis preferred that his work should be kept together, and today the King-Tisdell Foundation owns around three-fourths of his output (around 200 individual works, with additional pieces owned by the High Museum of Art in Atlanta). Davis’s works have been exhibited in Atlanta, New York and Washington, DC, but his stipulation that the pieces should not be separately sold limited the extent of his national recognition.
In addition to its permanent collections, the Beach Institute hosts several special exhibitions each year. See details of current and upcoming exhibitions Lectures, concerts and performances and and fundraising events are also held periodically at the Beach Institute. See upcoming events
The Beach Institute was the first official, permanent school erected for the education of African-Americans in Savannah. Prior to Emancipation, education of enslaved people was prohibited, with illegal clandestine schools the only form of organized instruction available.
Shortly after the Civil War, the northern American Missionary Association came to Savannah with the aim of establishing a school for freed people. Working in association with the Freedmen’s Bureau, they operated in several temporary locations before erecting a purpose-built schoolhouse.
$13,000 of the money needed for the new building was donated by Alfred Beach, inventor (his designs included a precursor to the New York subway and an early typewriter for the blind) and editor of the Scientific American. The school was named in his honor.
The schoolhouse was designed by John Boutell of Atlanta. Originally from New Salem, Massachusetts, Boutell was one of the very first architects to work in the then-small Atlanta, also taking commissions in Charleston and Macon as well as Savannah.
The building, a two-story structure on a raised basement, was completed in 1868 (it was reconstructed after a fire in 1878). Its eight rooms were each intended to accommodate 80 students; its chapel had space for 500 worshippers.
The American Missionary Association operated the school until 1939, after which it came under the management of the Chatham County Board of Education until 1970. In 1988, the Savannah College of Art and Design purchased the then-empty building as part of a lot of four former school buildings it wanted for adaptive reuse as college facilities.
SCAD donated the Beach Institute building to the King-Tisdell Foundation, who reopened it in 1990 as an African-American cultural center. The building was restored in 2000-2004.
The following is correct at the time of writing. Please verify details before planning your trip. For additional information call 912-335-8868 or visit the official website.
Location 502 East Harris Street, in the southeast of the Historic District. See on map
Hours Open Tuesday-Saturday, 12pm-5pm.
Admission Adults $7, seniors/military $3, children/students $2, young children (0-2) free. An additional preservation fee of $1 is added to all ticket prices.