Photography by Rich Burkhart
At the corner of Anderson Street and Ogeechee Road is a brick building with Cuyler High School etched above the entry. It is now home to the Economic Opportunity Authority (EOA) in Savannah, a nonprofit that assists low and middle-income residents with a host of social services.
When the structure was built in 1914, it marked a turning point in education in Savannah. It was the first time public funds were used to create a school for blacks.
Dorothy Wilson, who graduated from what became known as Beach-Cuyler High School in 1948, remembers that it was the only school that offered a public education for blacks past the sixth grade. “Without Beach, I wouldn’t have been able to finish high school.”
Despite the decades that have gone by, when asked about her high school days, Wilson quickly brings up vivid memories. “They were our teachers but they also looked out for us in other ways. And they had to find a way to do a lot with a little.” She recalled Mrs. Hamperton’s typing class and the lack of typewriters. “We had to practice typing on cardboard with a keyboard drawn on it.”
Then there was Miss Hopkins, the junior high math teacher. “You never wanted to go to ‘Zero Alley.’ That meant you got below a 70 and had to sit separated from the rest of the class.” Miss Virginia, the high school math teacher, taught them to be young ladies. “Once I was in the hall with my friends and we put on bright lipstick. She saw us and came up with a Kleenex and wiped it off. I got away because I ran,” she laughs.
Walter Simmons graduated in 1946. He remembers there were no buses for students. “No matter where you lived, you walked.” Simmons had an interest in science and he was particularly fond of Dr. Phillip Cooper, their science teacher. He taught biology, physics and chemistry (and eventually left to become a dentist). “He would collect and bring in bottles and cans so we would have something to do experiments with.” And Cooper taught them more than science. “He taught us to be a loving class,” Simmons says. “We are a family. We took trips and picnics together. We still have that bond.”
Even without a field or dedicated performance space, the football and basketball team were state champions, and the drama club brought a Broadway star to work with the students.
Wilson, Simmons and a group of fellow alumni joined together to create Beach- Cuyler, Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to saving the school building that meant so much to them and supporting related efforts. The building itself was donated to the organization and EOA rented it. During the years as a landlord, Beach-Culyer, Inc., replaced the roof, replaced windows, helped pave the lot and built a firewall. They also sponsored efforts for the students of Beach High School today.
After stewarding the building repairs and use, Beach-Cuyler, Inc., decided to disband. As a nonprofit, any assets the organization still had were required to be donated to another nonprofit. The building was donated to the EOA and the funds were distributed to various organizations. The largest gift was given to Savannah State University. “We gave $50,000 to Savannah State to support the students who are studying to become teachers,” Simmons says. “We all benefitted from amazing teachers and we all ended up attending Savannah State and then working in the education system ourselves. It seemed right.”
The donation will be used by the School of Teacher Education (SOTE) for everything from scholarships to supplies. Phillip Adams, vice president of University Advancement, says, “We are so honored that this group chose to give back to Savannah State. What they have done in the memory of their beloved high school will create the next generation of great teachers.”
This article first appeared in Impressions, Fall 2016