Where Are the Women?

Where are the women? (Hint: They are at SCAD)

Last week, SCAD celebrated five heroes at the university's biennial Georgia Day event, Savannah Women of Vision. The story of this historic investiture dates back to 2006, when SCAD acquired the former Richard Arnold High School, built in 1920 and later renamed Commercial High, and which now serves as SCAD's Arnold Hall. The very week that SCAD's adaptive rehabilitation of Arnold Hall began, more than a decade ago, I received a curious phone call from Bob Dickensheets, who was our SCAD preservation magician for many years.

"Well, we’ve found something," Bob said. (Bob was always finding something inside these old SCAD buildings.)

"Tell me!" I said.

"Come see for yourself!"

What we'd found was a WPA-era mural, long since painted over, on the proscenium arch of the old Arnold Hall Theater. Now impeccably restored by SCAD to its original grandeur, this nearly century-old fresco serves as Savannah's own Sistine Chapel, telling someone's version of the creation story of the city: It features the robust masculine profiles of Tomochichi, Pulaski, Oglethorpe, and other men who helped shape our city and state. 

When I first beheld this masterwork of Savannah history, I had but one nagging question: Where are the women?

Twelve years later, this question stands at the heart of our current cultural moment. The question is rhetorical, of course, for we know where the women are. They are in our history. They are in our lives. And they are now, thanks to SCAD, on the walls of Arnold Hall Theater. 

One of SCAD's dearest champions, the great American writer Dr. Maya Angelou, the most moving commencement speaker in SCAD history, said, "There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you."

The stories of heroic women in Savannah have long needed telling. For when you let loose these stories into the world, the agony of silence gives way to the glory of illumination. And SCAD wants to let the light shine — for all the students of SCAD and all the children of Savannah, the young girls and boys who march up Bull Street every year in the Georgia Day parade. They need to know who shaped this city and who shapes it still. 

After all, to honor a hero today is to make new heroes tomorrow. Consider the worldwide success of recent films such as The Post and Wonder Woman and hit TV series like How to Get Away with Murder and Scandal. The world cries out for female heroes! Which is why I created Savannah Women of Vision two years ago, when SCAD honored ten women:

      Cultural liaison Mary Musgrove Matthews Bosomworth
      Jewish community leader Abigail Minis
      Educator and Catholic nun Mother Mathilda Beasley
      Girl Scouts founder Juliette Gordon Low
      American author Flannery O'Connor
      Philanthropist and advocate Nancy N. Lewis
      Historic preservation icon Emma Morel Adler
      Lifelong educator Frances Wong
      Philanthropist and advocate Alice Andrews Jepson
      Jurist and Chief Justice (Ret.) Leah Ward Sears

This year, SCAD has proudly inducted five new Savannah Women of Vision, their portraits forever to grace the walls of Arnold Hall. Each bas-relief portrait, an impressive five feet high serves as a reminder of the important role that these and other women play in our lives as our mentors, mothers, sisters, teachers, and leaders.

Where are the women? They are right here.

Miriam Center, fearless, outspoken raconteur.

The life of Miriam Center has been defined by her warm and true caring for others, and by her audacity. At the height of her professional success, when she helped create the Savannah Civic Center, she surprised everyone by heeding the call to "Go west, young woman." Like her dear friend Johnny Mercer, she went, all the way to Malibu, where she began a spiritual journey and became a healer and a storyteller. Decades later, she returned home to Savannah, where she has been a writer and a staunch advocate of education and the arts. She authored a musical, "Johnny Mercer and Me," and a novel with a title that might make some blush. 

Edna Jackson, champion of equality.

Wherever Edna Jackson's journey takes her, you can bet history is about to be made. As a child, she joined the NAACP. As a teenager, she witnessed the lunch counter protests that launched the civil rights movement in Savannah. As a college student, she walked heroically with Dr. King in the March on Washington. Think of the courage! Imagine the hope that lives in a heart like hers! It's no wonder she shattered ceilings to become our city's first female African American mayor. Edna could have been born anywhere, and we’re blessed that God gave her to Savannah. 

Mary Lane Morrison, revolutionary preservationist.

I was in my 20s when I first moved to Savannah, a stranger starting some strange art college in an old Armory. And then one day, I received a lunch invitation from a very erudite Southern lady: Mary Lane Morrison. We hit it off instantly, with our shared love for historic preservation. I was a newbie, and she was a veteran, of course, one of the great architectural historians of Savannah. She photographed nearly every downtown building, scoured archives, transcribed endless court records. Without Mary's work, many of our city's architectural treasures may have been lost forever. We honor her for pioneering historic preservation practices in our city, and I thank her for the kindness that meant so very much, when my own life's work was just beginning.

Fredi Jackson, golden age actress and justice-seeking activist.  

The life of Fredi Washington was one of heroic triumph. She danced with Josephine Baker, performed on Broadway opposite Paul Robeson, and in 1934, starred in the Academy Award-nominated picture, Imitation of Life, which Time magazine called one of the world's "Most Important Films on Race." Nearly a century before the politics of race and identity took center-stage in our national conversation, Fredi lived these politics. She was often passed over for African American roles because she was, according to some, quote, "too white." And yet, Fredi declined to play white characters, even though these offers promised immense fame — because she believed these roles would have betrayed her family and culture. 

And so, when the industry refused her the role of a hero in film, she became a hero for others, giving voice and power to African American actors by creating the Negro Actors Guild of America, whose members included W.C. Handy, Hattie McDaniel, Lena Horne, and thousands more. Fredi took charge on-screen and off, a quality for which her family affectionately nicknamed her, "The General." Her talent for playing a character was exceeded only by the strength of her own character. 

Sema Wilkes, Southern foodways pioneer.

What can be said about the life and career of Sema Wilkes? I can think of one thing: biscuits. Well, and corn muffins. And fried chicken. And collards and yams. But don't think for a moment that sublime food was Mrs. Wilkes's greatest triumph. While she was making butterbeans at Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room, she was really making history as one of the South's and the nation's first female restaurant owners. It is for entrepreneurship that SCAD honors Sema Wilkes. Before Sema, women did not run their own restaurants. But she did. She cooked. She planned the menu. She served customers. She marketed. She authored cookbooks. And she served as an international diplomat for Southern culture and cuisine. This quiet Southern lady did it all, for common folk and U.S. presidents alike. The greatest testimony to her leadership is that four generations of her family have run this restaurant. Four generations! 

The entire SCAD family is honored to recognize Miriam, Edna, Mary, Fredi, Sema, and all women who fearlessly live their lives in service to their communities, their families, and their professions. The strength of their stories and the valor of their examples shine a light for all time, for all people. Today, when students and visitors enter SCAD's Arnold Hall Theater, they won't have to ask where the women are. They're hard to miss.