A visitor could easily spend a week sauntering along the city’s haunting boulevards and leave without a clue about the essential role Georgia’s oldest African-American community has played here. I’m not talking about the Lady Chablis, the foxy black drag queen made famous in “Midnight” (O.K., if you must, she gigs at Club One, a downtown joint), but rather figures like W. W. Law, the postal worker turned civil rights leader; or Ralph Mark Gilbert, pastor of First African Baptist Church, among the nation’s oldest black Baptist churches and a stop on the Underground Railroad. And then there’s head-scratching local trivia, such as an old waterway that is still called Runaway Negro Creek.
Blame the Low Country blackout, at least partly, on the fact that in the pageant of cities primping with New South sheen and aura, Savannah has perhaps made a less than eager contestant. The city is so proud of its Southern charms and traditions — Gothic Revival homes, high-on-the-hog soul food, Spanish moss canopies shading picturesque squares — that the mere suggestion of cultural evolution is enough to make an old-timer drop his mint julep. Perhaps Savannah’s legendary singer/songwriter Johnny Mercer said it best when he crooned: “I know I’m old fashioned/But I don’t mind it/That’s how I want to be/As long as you agree/To stay old fashioned with me.”
There are signs, though, that old-school Savannah is gradually becoming, well, a thing of the past. The new vibe can be traced, at least in part, to the Savannah College of Art and Design (known as SCAD) whose broad reach – it has campuses in Atlanta, Hong Kong and France – has attracted scores of artsy intellectuals to the city. Along with its contribution to Savannah’s swelling creative class, SCAD’s refashioning of old factories and warehouses into avant-garde learning centers in the historic district suggests that a cultural renaissance is underway in this otherwise sleepy town.