'Where are the African Americans in Savannah?' Too few residents attend cultural events

·5 min read
Wanda Smalls Lloyds is an author and retired newspaper editor.
Wanda Smalls Lloyds is an author and retired newspaper editor.

This is a column by Wanda S. Lloyd, an author and retired newspaper editor. She writes and co-hosts a podcast from her home in Savannah.

The other day as I was finishing up a lecture and book-signing event at The Learning Center, the educational arm of Senior Citizens Inc., on Bull Street, a couple of people engaged me in a conversation with this question:

“Why can’t we get more African Americans to come to our programs?”

Indeed, while I was presenting my lecture to the socially distanced, mostly masked audience, I was thinking the same thing. In fact, I was forewarned that I might see just two or three other Black faces in the room besides mine.

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A few weeks ago, Learning Center Director Roger Smith invited me to have lunch with him and he asked me the same question. Why is it so difficult to attract a greater number of Black people in Savannah to take advantage of the lectures, special learning programs, and educational travel the center has to offer?

Visitors to the Telfair view the installation for "Finding Freedom" by Sonya Clark, an African American artist whose piece offers a celestial viewpoint that encourages viewers to consider the plight of freedom-seeking enslaved individuals escaping the South prior to the Civil War.
Visitors to the Telfair view the installation for "Finding Freedom" by Sonya Clark, an African American artist whose piece offers a celestial viewpoint that encourages viewers to consider the plight of freedom-seeking enslaved individuals escaping the South prior to the Civil War.

I’ve had similar conversations with administrators of other places and programs in Savannah. In November I was presenting at the Jepson Center, and the conversation I had with the Telfair director was the same. Their exhibits and programming are quite inclusive of Black presenters and exhibits about the Black experience, but they want to see more African Americans attend their events.

I’ve had the same conversation with administrators of other Savannah museums, universities, private schools. To be fair, I’ve heard similar questions in other cities in the South where I have lived. Savannah is not unique in that way.

African American transplants in the Savannah area notice what administrators are questioning. It seems Savannah is as much a draw for Blacks as for white people who move here for the outstanding quality of life. African American transplants want to connect, to establish a sense of family, a feeling of home away from their prior home.

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I don’t profess to have all the answers. Beyond expanding my own circle of friends and attending as many events and programs as I can (admittedly fewer these past two pandemic years) to enjoy all that Savannah has to offer, I encourage African Americans to attend more art shows, more music events, try more unfamiliar restaurants and invite people of different backgrounds into their homes.

And I say take your children or grandchildren as a way of expanding their knowledge base of history, culture and people.

Last Thanksgiving at our house the dinner table of eight people included two who were brand new (“one week,” one of them said) to Savannah, two white women, and one African American woman who moved to Savannah more than a decade ago. The conversation was rich, with everyone at the table learning something new about our city, our respective cultures and some making plans to get together in the future.

Introducing Wanda Lloyd:

This is the debut column of the Savannah Morning News' latest regular opinion contributor, retired journalist Wanda Lloyd. During her newspaper career, Lloyd led the Montgomery (Alabama) Advertiser as executive editor and was part of the newsroom leadership team of USA TODAY, the Greenville (S.C.) News, the Miami Herald, the Washington Post, the Providence Evening Bulletin and the Atlanta Journal. Her column will appear twice a month.

I left Savannah after I graduated from Beach High School and I returned 45 years later. Like many newcomers, I was eager to make new friends, enjoy some of the city’s great restaurants, and take advantage of Savannah’s history and culture. I also aligned with some local organizations to make sure I am grounded in service to the community.

I can hear some readers now, those who are already poised to disagree with me. Who cares about diversity? Who cares if Black people don’t show up in certain places?

I see you. I hear you. I feel your sentiment. But I disagree.

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In fact, Savannah’s population is majority African American at about 54%, a data point on which some may base the question why African Americas are largely missing in certain venues. And I admit that I’ve lived in other cities in the South where I heard the same lament: Why don’t African Americans come to our events?

The burden is on those who see this from both sides of the coin. African Americans may ask why they don’t see more lifelong white residents attending events celebrating Black culture. In these days leading up to Black History Month in February, I am reminded that white people do attend many of the Black Heritage Festival events all over Savannah.

But I’ve never done polling to ask if they are lifelong Savannahians or relative newcomers.

Here are challenges for leaders of cultural events and venues and African Americans alike.

Think outside the box when promoting events, especially events with topics of interest to the African American community. Reach out beyond the normal social media footprint and traditional media, including the Savannah Morning News. Savannah has a strong Black media presence – newspapers, radio, informational websites. Do the work to find the audience you want to attract. Form partnerships with Black and multicultural faith groups. Reach out to Black-owned businesses, like barber shows, beauty salons, insurance company offices.

When I speak to some of my Black friends, I often let them know about events and places they may enjoy. But we have to make the time, make the effort. In recent months, many of these events have been virtual, so the pandemic is no excuse for not connecting.

We just celebrated the birthday and memory of Martin Luther King Jr., and I am reminded that he wrote on more than one occasion about his hope for a “beloved community.”

Perhaps the challenges presented here will help Savannah get one step closer to what King asked us to do, and perhaps I won’t hear the question as much: Where are the African Americans in Savannah?

Lloyd is author of “COMING FULL CIRCLE: From Jim Crow to Journalism.”

This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: Opinion: Savannah's Black community should take advantage of events

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