Story of Secret Classes to Desegregation of Savannah Schools told in exhibit to open February 23

“That’s me right there,” says Ulysses Bryant as he points to a picture of himself at age 18. Bryant is one of several students walking up the steps of Savannah High School. It was 1963 and these were young African Americans who were tasked with integrating the school.

.”It’s really difficult to put into words,” he tells me.. “Here we are going up the steps of Savannah High School , a place I had walked by on numerous occasions and viewed from a distance. I really had no idea initially of the historical impact (our actions would have) not only on the schools but the community,” says Bryant.

Ironically, years later, Bryant would become Chief of Police of Savannah-Chatham County Public Schools.

Bryant’s experience is part of an exhibit called “Enslavement to Emancipation: the Struggle for Education which is featured at the Massie Heritage Center. It opens with a special event Thursday, February 23. (This includes a walking tour of several squares with particular historical significance for African Americans and then continues to the Massie Heritage Center for a ceremony at 6:30 in which Mr. Bryant will speak about his experiences in the 1960’s.)

Steve Smith of the Massie Heritage Center says anyone who wants to make reservations should call 912-395-5070 or visit their website.

Smith tells us that this exhibit is about the entire history and struggle of African Americans in Savannah to receive an education, beginning in the 19th Century with “secret” schools because it was against the law for African Americans to learn to read and write. The exhibit features local heroes and pioneers like Susie King Taylor, James Simms, James Porter and Mother Matilda Beasley.

“There’s a lot of courageous figures that are being exhibited,” says Smith. “So people really get the idea of the struggle that African Americans had to go through.”

Bryant says the struggle continued to the 60’s when he and his classmates spent their final year in school at what had previously been an all White Savannah High.

He says there were plenty of difficult days, including often having classmates hit his arm so his books would fall to the floor. Bryant also recounted a serious incident in wood shop class in which he was hit on the back of a head with a board. “My teacher and fellow classmates all said they didn’t see anything. To this day, no one has ever taken responsibility for hitting me,” he told us.

Still, through it all he and others refused to give up. “Education is something that you don’t take for granted,” Bryant told me as we looked at pictures in the exhibit.

He persevered and “Once the desegregation of schools began, from my view – the walls of desegregation began to crumble,” says Bryant.  “I look at it in my case where a school district that once practiced segregation against me – and others of my race eventually I became Chief of the entire department of public safety, the campus police department. It’s not about me, it never was, it’s about our people and the people in our community and I just hope that we can continue to make progress.”

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