Nobody knew or could tell Savannah’s history better than the late Westley Wallace Law, a career postman whose leadership of the local N.A.A.C.P. chapter from 1950 to the mid-1970s made him a folk hero. He wasn’t a man known to write much down. But any serious discussion of black historical Savannah, from business and education to preservation, somehow includes the name W. W., as he was known. Law was a colorful personality whose deep political connections belied a common touch (for years, he operated his own tourism company, the Negro Heritage Trail Tour shuttle, yet he himself preferred traveling around town on foot). In 1961, the Postal Service fired Law for his civil rights activism, but President Kennedy stepped in and he was given his job back.
In recent years, the Georgia Historical Society, the City of Savannah and Savannah State University have battled over the rights to Law’s collection of personal papers, books and other memorabilia (the W. W. Law Foundation awarded the documents to the Georgia Historical Society last year). Law himself would have frowned upon such friction: As inscribed on his Laurel South Cemetery headstone: “I was the result of a composite contribution. I tried not to have a big ending, but rather, to live my life doing the best I could each day, because a good name is rather to be chosen than great riches.”
As a tour guide, Johnnie Brown carries the torch for Law. Mr. Brown, 46, became a kind of understudy to him during his years of driving the tour bus for Law’s Negro Heritage Trail Tour. Mr. Brown regularly chaperoned Law around town, including to one of Law’s favorite restaurants, Paula Deen’s Lady & Sons, which opened as a full-service restaurant in 1991 (it actually began in 1989 in Ms. Deen’s home, serving bagged lunches to area businesses). To this day it remains one of Savannah’s most popular restaurants. During a recent weekday lunch, the place was packed with tourists and locals partaking in a soul food buffet that included fried chicken and fish, macaroni and cheese, candied yams and collard greens. (If you’re wondering, yes, there were several blacks at the restaurant, although mostly in the kitchen.)