The city of Savannah, Ga. is hopeful it can stabilize a geographic piece of its cultural heritage by restoring the home of the late Calvin L. and Virginia J. Kiah, prominent Black educators who allowed their dwelling to double as “a museum for the masses.”
Dr. Calvin Lycurgus Kiah was born in Princess Anne in 1910, the second child of Mary Roberta and Dr. Thomas Henry Kiah, the longest-serving leader in the University of Maryland Eastern Shore’s history (1910-1936).
Calvin Kiah’s wife, the former Virginia Jackson, hailed from a prominent Baltimore family active in the civil rights movement and closely associated with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Virginia and Calvin Kiah settled in Savannah in 1951, where he was a professor at the city’s historically Black college and she taught art at a local high school.
A November 2021 article published by the Savannah Morning News about negotiations to bring the Kiah property back to life included a carousel of digitized photos of paintings from the Virginia Kiah collection in the Savannah College of Art and Design’s Museum of Art.
One of those images accompanying the newspaper article showed a “man with glasses, mustache, dark suit and brown tie” and asked rhetorically if it might be the late Louis B. Toomer, a prominent Savannah businessman. The color portrait bears a striking resemblance to a grainy black-and-white image published in July 1939 by the Pittsburgh Courier, which pronounced Virginia Kiah “one of the (nation’s) leading contemporary artists.”
Under the headline: “An Artist and her Masterpiece,” the photo shows her holding a paint brush with a portrait of Thomas Kiah, her late father-in-law, describing it as “perfect in all its fine details.”
In 2006, the university accepted a portrait of Thomas Kiah by Joel Babb, who was commissioned by Leonard S. Coleman Jr., Kiah’s grandson, to produce the oil painting that was unveiled during the university’s 120th Founders’ Week celebration.
Virginia Kiah’s legacy as an artist and civil rights activist lives on in a prominent way in Savannah. The Savannah College of Art and Design’s art museum is named Kiah Hall, and the website for the institution – known by its acronym SCAD – shows a vast collection of her works, 13 of which were reproduced digitally for the November 2021 newspaper article.
The museum’s website notes “(Virginia) Kiah had a close, decades-long relationship with SCAD and cared deeply about creating a positive and accepting environment for students to learn and create.”
“In 1986, SCAD awarded her an honorary doctorate of humanities. A year later, she was appointed to the SCAD Board of Trustees, where she would serve until 1997. Interested in fostering young artists’ work, Kiah created the Kiah Painting Endowed Scholarship, which is still active today,” the website says.
“She was a treasured member of our SCAD family,” said Joël Díaz, Director of the Evans Center for African American Studies. “When Kiah donated her collection to SCAD, her wish was to inspire future generations of artists to live their vision. Her works are doing just that!”
“The newspaper clipping (UMES) sent us that includes images painted by (Virginia) Kiah was very useful in helping us identify the man in one of the portraits as Kiah’s father-in-law, Dr. Thomas H. Kiah,” Díaz said. “We have updated our records accordingly.”
The University of Maryland Eastern Shore is grateful to the Savannah College of Art and Design for embracing the newspaper clipping as evidence that helped the latter finally place a name to the portrait of the distinguished gentleman in its collection.