Here’s a Savannah history lesson. Many readers will be able to name the current head of the Georgia Republican Party. But do you know who led the Party of Lincoln in the 1920s in Georgia?
Here’s a hint if you don’t know: Drive to the corner of East Henry Street and Java Place, across from the Carnegie Library and read the state’s newest historic marker unveiled Thursday.
The answer is Savannah native, Mamie George Williams. Born seven years after the end of the Civil War, Williams captured national headlines in 1924 when she was appointed the first woman to represent Georgia at the Republican National Convention and became the first woman in American history to speak at the party convention. A committed suffragist, she supported voters’ rights and was a lifelong advocate for children, including the Girl Scouts.
“She is Savannah’s jewel,” said Velma Fann, a historian from Atlanta who has spent 20 years researching the life and achievements of this legendary women. “She’s your jewel.”
Mamie, as she was known to friends and admirers, was born Mary Francis to parents who were church leaders in Savannah. She attended The Beach Institute, married a local Black businessman and lived in the Dixon Park neighborhood near what is known now as East Broad, the area where her plaque now stands.
Williams was already a political activist by the time the 19th Amendment was passed in 1919. As a member of the Women’s Suffrage Club of Chatham County, she worked to take a census of every woman of voting age and helped establish night schools and literary classes. Ahead of the 1920 presidential elections, she had registered 40,000 women to vote in Georgia.
Three local groups who are continuing this Legacy sponsored the historical marker — The League of Women Voters for Coastal Georgia, the Savannah Alumnae Chapter of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority and The Savannah Tribune, which is Georgia’s oldest continuously published Black-owned newspaper.
The Savannah Tribune was one of the many papers who covered Williams’ life contemporaneously. In her obituary, the paper called her “an Esther for her people,” a reference to the Biblical heroine who helped liberate the exiled Jews. She died in 1951, when Jim Crow laws still prevented most Black Georgians from voting.
Speaking of the need for people to keep mobilizing and turn out to vote, Shirley James, the current publisher of The Savannah Tribune, said she hoped Williams’ legacy would inspire a new generation of Georgians, especially young Black women, to increase civic engagement.
“If Mamie did it while she was alive, even with all the roadblocks in her way in her time, what does that mean for us?” James asked the nearly 60 people who came to the unveiling of the historic marker. “If Mamie did it, we can do it.”
The Tide brings news and observations from The Current staff.