Nobody personifies this creative leap forward more than Walter O. Evans, a wealthy, Savannah-born African-American art collector who returned to his hometown more than a decade ago, bringing with him some of the most important works by black artists in the world. A retired surgeon who spent his career in Detroit, Mr. Evans amassed a collection that includes more than 200 works by artists dating from the 19th century to the present, among them works by Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence. “His collection is on par with Bill Cosby’s,” said Kimberly Shreve, a managing director with the Savannah College of Art and Design. “He got in before anyone knew how important the art was.”
Today, a new wing at the college bears his name; it not only houses Mr. Evans’s own art, but also an ever-changing collection of works by other black artists.
On a recent spring afternoon, the Walter O. Evans Center for African-American Studies was abuzz as workers scrambled to prepare for a fashion-crammed weekend honoring the pioneering black designer Stephen Burrows with a lifetime achievement award. André Leon Talley, the well-known fashion expert for whom a gallery at the center is named, curated the exhibition of Burrows’s designs. “This kind of thing happens almost daily around here now, and these are the kinds of things I’m interested in,” said Mr. Evans, who began collecting art in the early 1980s. “But the Savannah I left is nothing like the Savannah I returned to. When I left there were so many black entrepreneurs; now there’s just a few.”
It’s tough to imagine now, but for decades during segregation – and before the urban renewal projects of the 1960s — the pride of Savannah’s black movers and shakers was West Broad Street, now a gritty stretch of vacant lots, public housing and highway overpasses known as Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Located in the shadow of Savannah’s revitalized riverfront, West Broad was, in the 1940s, a thriving commercial and social hub with restaurants, the Union Station train depot and nearly 200 businesses, including Wage Earners Savings and Loan Bank, Savannah Pharmacy and the Star and Dunbar theaters.