When I first came to Savannah, Georgia to tour Savannah College of Art and Design, I didn’t love the city. It was hot and humid and sticky and everything was fancy and pretty and elegant and, for some reason, that put me off. However, I loved SCAD and so, three years ago when I moved into my freshman dorm room, I suddenly found myself calling Savannah my second home.
I’ve grown to love it over the years and I’ve found ways to make it my own. I’ve been to brunch at nearly every spot in town and I’ve eaten so many pralines and Leopold’s Ice Cream that my teeth hurt. However, until this weekend I had never seen Savannah at its annual peak: St. Patrick’s Day.
For some reason, it’s a huge thing down here. It’s so huge, SCAD’s spring break is dictated by when it falls so that all of the students can get the hell out of town to let the thousands and thousands and thousands of people (and this year, Vice President Pence) into town to get smashed, both by the booze and the crowds. I’ve always gone back home to Albuquerque each spring break but this year I stayed and experienced my first Savannah St. Patrick’s Day.
It was nuts. It was crazy. There were wall to wall people all over the city and my friends and I nearly had a panic attack every five minutes or so from the claustrophobia of it all. It was reported to be the biggest year yet, breaking the previous record of one million people enjoying the celebration in 2012. Despite all of that, I fell more in love with the city because I got to see it from an outside perspective. I got to act like a tourist and get lost and be inspired and explore a whole new world.
The only time I felt a similar kind of kinship with Savannah was earlier in February when our president, Paula Wallace, honored five new inductees to the Savannah Women of Vision, female trailblazers who have shaped the city and the world through ingenuity, compassion, strength and courage. I attended the ceremony and covered it for the newspaper and I felt so empowered and inspired, I felt like I could take on anything, including a sea of at least (and I am literally not exaggerating) 300,000 people crammed into the space of a couple blocks along River Street.
I dug deeper into the women’s stories after the ceremony and each made me fall more and more in love with The Hostess City so, in light of my renewed love of this weird, odd, crazy town, I figured I would share them with you all today.
Miriam Center (1926-present)
Miriam was born in 1926 in Savannah to immigrants from Belarus. Throughout her childhood, but especially during her time at Savannah High School, she was ostracized for being Jewish. She didn’t care. “I was popular with the boys, and that was all that mattered.”
After the end of World War II, she immersed herself in volunteer work, helping to relocate survivors from concentration camps.
In the 1950s, she married alderman Leo Center and had three sons. However, she refused to accept the conventional role of a Southern mother, sitting around drinking and playing cards. She started her own real estate business and served as the chair of the opening of the Savannah Civic Center in 1974.
After her 15-year-old son, Henry, died of a brain tumor, her marriage began to crumble. She waited until her other sons, Tony and Scott, were grown and then divorced Leo, bought a convertible and drove west until she found herself on the beaches of Malibu.
In California, Miriam had a spiritual awakening which took the initial form of a white-robed cult, grew into transcendental mediation and finally landed her at the University of Santa Monica where she earned a degree in spiritual psychology. She also founded the Daughters of Destiny, a group that has brought focus and strength to women through spirituality.
When Miriam found herself back in Savannah in the 1990s, she became the first female director of the Metropolitan Planning Commission and ran for city council twice. In her second attempt in 1999, she was defeated by fellow Woman of Vision, Edna Jackson, whose winning campaign was run by Miriam’s son, Tony.
Around this time, Miriam began to tell stories of her own. She wrote “Scarlett O’Hara Can Go to Hell,” a semi-autobiographical novel that describes itself as “a mesmerizing tale of one woman’s determination to re-write southern society’s definition of what her life should or can be.”
She also began work on her musical, “Johnny Mercer and Me,” which uses 16 of Mercer’s tunes to detail her friendship with the Academy Award-winning composer. She had first met Mercer in 1963 when she sat on his lap at a party. Apparently, Mercer responded by singing his song “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby,” adding “but baby you got a fat ass.”
However, their relationship grew deeper when Mercer moved back to Savannah from Hollywood in order to care for his sick mother. Miriam had only just lost Henry to a brain tumor when Johnny was diagnosed as terminally ill with the same condition. This strengthened their profound relationship which continued until Mercer’s death in 1976.
Savannah’s Lucas Theater put on a production of the musical in 2012 which Miriam produced and revived it again in 2016. Since then, Miriam, now 91, has busied herself by writing articles for “Savannah Now” and captivating admirers with her trademark charm, wit and gleeful swearing.
According to her, the secret to her vitality is to avoid “all those damn medications they’re always trying to shove down old people’s throats. That, and good sex.”
Edna Jackson (1944-present)
Born in 1944, Edna grew up in Savannah in Currytown, which has since been razed and replaced with projects under “urban renewal.” Fatherless, she was predominantly raised by her grandmother while her mother worked long spells in Florida as a cook to send money back home to care for Edna and her sister. Her grandmother was not formerly educated but loved to read and she forbade Edna to cook or do housework so that she could instead spend her time on homework and extracurricular activities.
Her godmother and next-door neighbors would invite the Jackson girls over for tea and encourage Edna’s already blooming civic pursuits. “They saw something in me I didn’t see in myself,” she said.
When Edna was nine, her grandmother suggested that she join Savannah’s NAACP Youth Council where she was taught African-American history, largely ignored in public school curriculum, by Savannah civil rights trailblazer W. W. Law.
Her family did not have the money to send both her and her sister to college but Edna was content to prioritize her involvement with the NAACP over her education. She attended church “kneel-ins” and joined sit-ins at downtown businesses. She also participated in a “wade-in” at Tybee Beach, when the beach itself was integrated but only whites were permitted to swim in the water. She and a couple of her fellow participants were arrested and thrown in jail, still in their bathing suits.
When she was eighteen, she helped the Youth Council take an integrated group in three station wagons to Washington, D.C. to participate in the March on Washington and to hear Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963.
She extended her NAACP work to include Florida and Alabama and became a part of the historic march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. Edna said, “I worked full time with the NAACP until they said it was time for me to go back to school. I said ‘No, I need to fight for freedom.’ I’ll never forget my boss asked, ‘What are you going to do with that freedom once you get it?’ I couldn’t answer that question and they sent me back to school. So I owe a lot to the NAACP.”
Edna enrolled at Savannah State, graduated in 1968 and earned her master’s in education in 1972. Sometime during her time at State, she heard a speech by Shirley Chisholm, the country’s first black congresswoman and one of the founders of the Congressional Black Caucus. Chisholm was currently campaigning as the first black woman to run for president.
Edna briefly worked as a social worker before returning to Savannah State to serve as director of emergency school assistance while also serving as a recruiter, counsellor, admissions officer and alumni liaison.
After Edna retired in 2001, she shifted her focus towards politics, serving three terms as an alderwoman on the Savannah City Council, beating out fellow Woman of Vision Miriam Center for her third term. During her time as alderwoman, she cultivated support with the diverse businesses of Savannah.
In 2011, Edna was elected as the 65th mayor of Savannah, the city’s first African-American woman to hold the position. During her two terms in office, she prioritized jobs and fought to deepen Savannah’s harbor to allow “supertankers” into the port. In 2012, she conducted a minute-long meeting with President Obama, somehow working in a discussion of the delicious biscuits of another fellow Woman of Vision, Sema Wilkes, into a conversation lobbying for federal funding.
Edna continues to receive accolade after accolade, including the Savannah Civil Rights Museum Unsung Heroes Award, the NAACP Freedom Award and the Equal Opportunity Association Martin Luther King Service Award.
Throughout the successes of her later life, Edna has continued to champion the power of female friendship and support by creating a group of friends and colleagues who call themselves the Mandingo Socio-Civic Club and function as informal advisors and counselors.
When looking back on the most influential moments of her life, Edna said, “You have to be able to tell your story. How can you know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been?”
Mary Lane Morrison (1907-1994)
On August 15, 1907, Mary Lane Morrison was born in Savannah to Mills Bee Lane, Sr. and Mary Comer Lane. She left Savannah only briefly to attend Smith College. After her graduation, she returned to the Hostess City.
She began to study Savannah’s unique layout and architecture and documented buildings, parks and squares. Her photographs of the city were shown at the 1929 World’s Fair in Barcelona. She also maintained the names of architects and construction dates for buildings all over Savannah. Combined with newspaper clippings and Savannah City Council minutes that Mary Lane collected, transcribed and filed, she created a vital scholarly archive for the city.
On May 10, 1941, she married Howard J. Morrison, a Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Navy, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. The couple had three children, Howard, Jr., Mills, and Mary.
Mary Lane was a member of many important historical preservation societies throughout the city, state, and nation. She served on the Board of Curators of the Georgia Historical Society, then as a member of the National Society off the Colonial Dames of America in the State of Georgia, and finally, as a director of the Victorian Society in America.
For her active participation in Savannah’s preservation community, the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation gave her the Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Preservation award. They lauded her work as having “a major impact in documenting the architecture of Savannah. Virtually every building’s date of original construction is known as wells the name of the builders, with specific references to date of construction and appropriate architectural style.”
She wrote the definitive biography of John S. Norris, a famous Savannah architect. After, she continued to write and became a contributor and the editor of “Historic Savannah: A Survey of Significant Buildings in the Historic and Victorian Districts of Savannah, Georgia.”
She died at the age of 86 on July 16, 1994 and is buried in Bonaventure Cemetery next to her husband. Her legacy of the historical and architectural celebration of Savannah lives on through her family who established the Mary Lane Morrison Endowment in her honor in 1995. Each of her children have also received the Georgia Trust’s Preservation Award for Excellence for the Lebanon Plantation, a long time family home.
Mary Lane’s curiosity and commitment to preserving the architectural history of Savannah has not only helped the tradition of historical preservation in Savannah grow into the celebrated art form it is today, but also our understanding of the history behind the Historic District.
Fredericka Washington (1903-1994)
Born in Savannah in December 1903 with fair skin, green eyes and wavy hair, Fredi stood out from the rest of her African-American family. During the Great Migration, the Washingtons moved to Philadelphia, where Fredi looked after her siblings after her mother died, and, after her father remarried, attended the St. Elizabeth Convent School.
When she was 16, she moved to Harlem and lived with her grandmother and aunt and worked as a bookkeeper at the W. C. Handy Black Swan Record Company. While she was working, Fredi heard about a casting call for the all-black Broadway musical “Shuffle Along” and began to work with a dance tutor to train for a role. She was cast as a chorus dancer and traveled with the troupe, which featured Josephine Baker and Paul Robeson, for a four year tour. She earned $35 weekly, enough to singlehandedly take care of her entire family.
Fredi returned to Manhattan and performed at Club Alabam, where producer Lee Shubert discovered her and recommended her for a leading theatre role opposite Paul Robeson in “Black Boy.”
After “Black Boy,” Fredi moved to Europe, frustrated with the few casting opportunities for black actresses. She became a part of a ballroom dance troupe who toured through France, Germany and England, where Fredi taught the 1920s dance craze, the Black Bottom, to the Prince of Wales.
After returning to America in 1928, she made her film debut in “Black and Tan Fantasy,” a musical short that co-starred Duke Ellington. A few years later, she appeared opposite Paul Robeson again in “The Emperor Jones.” During this time, films were strictly censored to ban interracial relationships on screen. Because of Fredi’s fair complexion, she was “dipped,” which meant she had to wear dark-toned make-up during every romantic scene.
In 1934, she landed her best-known role in John M. Stahl’s “Imitation of Life,” nominated for an Academy Award for best picture. She played Peola, a young light-skinned African American woman who attempts to pass for white to avoid discrimination. The film appeared among Time Magazine’s 2008 “25 Most Important Films on Race.”
Despite the significance of the film, many viewers accused Fredi of trying to deny her heritage in real life and she found she was often deemed too light-skinned for the few black roles in Hollywood. She refused several chances to pass as a white actress and, in a Chicago Defender article entitled “To Pass or Not to Pass?” published in 1945, she said, “No matter how white I look, on the inside I feel black.”
Because of these experiences, Fredericka stopped acting in movies after “Imitation of Life” and focused on becoming a writer and a civil rights activist. She helped to found the Negro Actors Guild of American in 1937 and strived to expand opportunities for African American actors and actresses. She became active in the NAACP and lobbied for a larger black presence in the arts and for better lodging conditions for black performers.
She later served as the theatre editor and columnist for the “People’s Voice” newspaper and worked as a casting consultant for “Porgy and Bess,” “Carmen Jones” and “Cry the Beloved Country.” In 1975, she was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame.
Fredi contracted Alzheimers and, following several strokes, died on June 28, 1994 at the age of 90 in Stanford, Connecticut.
In the 1945 Defender article, she said, “I am an American citizen and, by God, we all have inalienable rights and whenever those rights are tampered with, there is nothing left to do but fight…and I fight.”
Sema Wilkes (1907-2002)
Sema was born in Vidalia, Georgia in 1907. At the age of seven, she started to cook for her family and their workers. She lived the fairly ordinary early life of a young woman growing up on a Georgia farm at the time. She received schooling, married another farmer, Lois, and started a family. However, throughout it all, she captivated the attention of anyone who tasted her cooking.
The Wilkes were forced to leave their farm because of eminent domain in 1942. Lois moved to Savannah to find a new job and ended up working for Southern Railroad. While he looked for employment, he stayed at Miss Dennis Dixon’s Boardinghouse on 107 West Jones. Sema and their kids would visit him on the weekends and began to befriend Miss Dixon, whose old age limited the amount of work she was able to do. In 1943, Sema helped in the kitchen and dining room. Later that year, Sema bought the entire boardinghouse off of Miss Dixon and renamed it “Mrs. Wilkes’ Boardinghouse.”
The railroad workers who boarded at the house quickly spread the word that some of the best meals in Savannah were at “Mrs. Wilkes’.” Quickly, Sema was making close to one hundred meals a day, many more than the 12 or so that she had gotten used to during her first few months at the boardinghouse. Nonetheless, she rolled up her sleeves and got to work with a “more the merrier” attitude.
In the 1960s, the railroads shut down and boardinghouses gave way to the growing popularity of hotels and motels. Sema temporarily shut down “Mrs. Wilkes’” and converted it to a full dining room. The restaurant featured large family-style communal tables that could seat up to 12 people. Pretty soon after its reopening, long lines stretched around the block with regulars and newcomers alike anxiously awaiting one of Sema’s hearty meals. The dining room quickly became a flourishing fixture downtown.
Sema wrote and published her first cookbook, “Famous Recipes, from Mrs. Wilkes’ Boarding House in Historic Savannah” in 1990. After its publication, Sema found herself spending most of her time signing copies at the front of the restaurant, breaking away occasionally to give the blessing before her patron began to eat.
Sema saw the publication of her second book, “Mrs. Wilkes’ Boardinghouse Cookbook: Recipes and Recollections from Her Savannah Table” in 2001, a year before she passed away at the age of 95. Her family continued to run the restaurant after her passing.
Because of Sema’s reputation, Mrs. Wilkes’ Dining Room has served a vast array of notable figures, including former President Barack Obama, Robert Duvall, Kate Smith, Gregory Peck and renowned food critic Craig Claiborne, who claimed her biscuits were “one of the greatest things to ever happen in my life.” In 1988, a prestigious Tokyo hotel sent its head chef to learn in Sema’s kitchen for two weeks and restyled three of its restaurants into establishments similar to Mrs. Wilkes’.
Sema won multiple awards, including the Al Burress Lifetime Achievement Award from the Georgia Tourism Council and wide acclaim in virtually every Southern culinary media outlet.
As Hayes remarked, what Sema accomplished in her time would have been astounding, even today. The dining business notoriously excluded women and yet Sema managed to create a name for herself that embodies the entire Southern tradition of generosity and fellowship. And she created some dang good biscuits while she was at it.
Come to Savannah. Come to experience the southern charm and wit of Miriam Center where people can cuss you out with a glowing smile. Come to experience the history of change made possible by Edna Jackson. Come to experience the gorgeous architecture and historical façades protected by Mary Lane Morrison. Come to experience the way the city gives you a powerful voice the way it did for Fredericka Washington. Come to experience the best food you’ll ever taste made possible by the tradition started by Sema Wilkes. Come to experience a city that is so charming and captivating and important because of the women who have shaped it.
And if, for some ludicrous reason, all of that doesn’t trip your trigger, come next March 17th and get drunk with a million of your closest friends. Either way, we’ll see ya around.