Savannah’s civil rights museum is named for Ralph Mark Gilbert. Born in Jacksonville in 1899, Gilbert became pastor of the historic First African Baptist Church on Franklin Square in 1939. He also served as the president of the Savannah NAACP Chapter for 8 years (1942-1950). He remained pastor at First African Baptist for the duration of his life until his death in 1956 at the age of fifty seven. Sorrowfully, he didn’t pass away in his adopted city of Savannah but died while vacationing in New York. But during his lifetime, he was a leader who made a difference and his legacy is still felt today. More than halfway through his tenure as president of the Savannah NAACP, Gilbert’s outspoken leadership for equal rights finally led the Savannah Police Department to hire its first black officer in 1947.
Beyond his influence in Savannah, Gilbert inspired black leaders in other communities in Georgia to organize. He’s credited providing the leadership that led to the creation of local chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in more than three dozen other small towns and cities across the state of Georgia.
The location of the Civil Rights Museum is particularly interesting. In 1914, the five story building was erected to house the Wage Earners Savings Bank. It customer base was strictly the black community in Savannah and it became the largest black bank in the United States in the early 20th century.
An introductory video and interactive features that inspire reflection on the time from emancipation right the the struggles of the modern civil rights era will be the most interesting items in the museum, which opened in 1996. Soon it will be celebrating two decades (in 2016) of showcasing the power of hope and the possibility of change. Information is available on the non-violent demonstrations such as boycotts and sit-ins that led to social change in Savannah.
While Martin Luther King, Jr. visited Savannah during the civil rights movement, the focus of the Ralph Mark Gilbert Museum is on the local leaders who inspired black and white Savannahians to change. Hosea Williams is another name synonymous with leadership in the civil rights movement across the country spent time in Savannah learning from the great men of our community to make a difference in the world.
The Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum is located at 460 Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard.