Imagine being a student in the first class of a school that provided the opportunity to achieve an education that had been long denied. Consider being an instructor in that school as it opened and being able to educate such a student. Because firsts in American education are such major achievements, the Beach Institute in Savannah, Georgia, has a noteworthy place in the heritage of educational triumphs, particularly in the American South.
Standing next to a chalkboard first used only two years after the American Civil War had ended, I had a sense of awe when I stood at the front of a classroom in the Beach Institute. As I looked the desks used when the school opened for newly emancipated African Americans, I tried to understand the obstacles that both students and instructors faced and consider their goals to improve lives through education.
The Beach Institute opened in 1867 with 600 students. With only eight classrooms, the institute was operating at more than full capacity as it tried to meet the needs of such eager students. A male principal led a staff of nine female teachers, most of whom were white and from the North.
Although Georgia custom and law prohibited teaching slaves to read and write, several secret schools in Savannah helped many enslaved Africans become skilled readers and writers (as the example of Susan King Taylor illustrates). Thus, when the Beach Institute opened, scores of students who enrolled could already read and write. According to Vaughnette Goode-Walker, director of cultural diversity and access at the Telfair Museums in Savannah, the number was as high as 200 (because learning was not against the law – only teaching).
Named for Alfred E. Beach (a philanthropist who donated land for the building), the institute was funded by the American Missionary Association (AMA), a society founded in 1846 by Congregational, Baptist, and Presbyterian abolitionists of New Haven, Connecticut. After the start of the American Civil War, the AMA began focusing on education for freed slaves. By 1868, the AMA, which also established many historical black colleges and universities, had more than five hundred teachers and missionaries throughout the South.
When the Beach Institute opened, its Greek revival style of architecture made it an impressive building. Even more impressive than its architecture is its social history, including efforts to fund and build it, supply skilled teachers and administrators, provide a credible education to its students, and maintain the structure as a historic structure when its days in education had ended.
Located in the historic district of Savannah, the three-story wood frame structure is the oldest surviving African American educational center in Georgia. The Beach Institute continued as a school until 1970 and has had only a few modifications to its floor plan, even though it also served as an elementary school high school, trade school, and center for adult education. It has now been recast as the Beach Institute African American Culture Center with a charge of collecting, interpreting, preserving, and presenting African American history and culture through educational events and exhibits, according to Darlene Wilson, a staff member and docent. As a result, the center continues its ability to generate public interest that dates back to October 3, 1868, when Harper’s Weekly featured the institute in an article about newly constructed schools for African Americans.
Other college instructors who were participating in a workshop on African American culture and history conducted by the Georgia Historical Society for the National Endowment for the Humanities shared my sense of awe when we entered a classroom. Although the original student desks are hard and uncomfortable by today’s ergometric standards, no one could pass the opportunity to sit at such historic desks and imagine being in the classroom in 1867. The educational challenges of today seem so minor when compared to the significant achievements that others before us accomplished.