Credit: Peter Biello / GPB News
Marker honoring suffragist Mamie George Williams planned for Savannah
LISTEN: GPB's Peter Biello speaks with historian Velma Thomas Fann about the life of Mamie George Williams. A new monument is planned to go up this May in Savannah to commemorate the suffragist and community leader.
A new monument is planned for the intersection of East Broad and East Henry Street in Savannah to commemorate suffragist and community leader Mamie George Williams. After women won the right to vote in 1920, Williams began helping Black women register and is credited with helping more than 40,000 women vote in that year's presidential election. GPB's Peter Biello spoke about her remarkable life with historian and author Velma Thomas Fann.
Peter Biello: So tell us a little bit about Mamie George Williams's early life. She grew up in Savannah?
Velma Thomas Fann: Right. She was born and reared in Savannah. She went to the Beach Institute. She also went to Atlanta University. And she graduated from there. And she stayed in the Savannah area. Her parents were religious leaders and very, very prominent at that time. So all of her life, she stuck very closely to the Savannah community.
Peter Biello: And when did she get into politics and why? What drove her into that?
Velma Thomas Fann: I'm not sure why. She first started out with the Toussaint L'Ouverture American Red Cross. And so she volunteered 2,400 hours of volunteer service. So she was always very civic-minded. And I think people just kind of kept an eye on her. And pretty soon, she just kind of walked into the politics, starting, I guess, around 1920, because she was a suffragist. And so they looked and said "This woman from Savannah is making some gains." And people really started to notice her.
Peter Biello: What was it about her that that allowed people to say, "Whoa, she's noteworthy?"
Velma Thomas Fann: I think it had to do with her stature. She seemed to be a woman who stood her ground, a woman who got things done. She married very prominently and I think that helped as well. But she was very focused and she she stood flatfooted for what she believed in.
Peter Biello: What were some of the barriers she might have faced back then?
Velma Thomas Fann: Racial and sexual barriers. She fought both. So being the first African-American woman to hold a seat on the Republican National Committee from Georgia and the first African-American woman to hold that seat in the whole nation, she stood out and she really felt that she had to speak for the cause of African-American political leaders, particularly the Republican Party, of which she was a part.
Peter Biello: And I feel like you can't understate how big an achievement that would have been. I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about how she rose to that level.
Velma Thomas Fann: She rose to the level — she was appointed by Linc Johnson, who was a prominent Republican leader here in Georgia. And because of her work with the suffragist movement, her ability to get things done, when the Republican Party decided that they would let women into the Republican National Committee, he tapped Mamie George Williams. So that's how she was introduced to that — to that circle. And then she won that seat later on. So she served on the Republican National Committee from 1924 to 1932.
Peter Biello: What does it mean to you, someone who's studied her life and legacy, to know that there's going to be a marker put up in Savannah in May?
Velma Thomas Fann: Well, I was surprised. I was surprised that no one knew who she was, first of all, particularly in that area. I was surprised that her legacy had been forgotten. So when we moved forward and made a submission for the historical marker and looked as to where to put it, we looked at Dixon Park because that is the street that she lived on. And I thought, "If this is not more fitting that all of this is all coming together 99 years after she first sat on the Republican National Committee."
Peter Biello: So the marker is going to go on the street she lived on. Is her house still standing?
Velma Thomas Fann: Her house is still standing.
Peter Biello: And is it marked somehow that it's her house?
Velma Thomas Fann: No, I haven't knocked on that door yet.
Peter Biello: So it's privately owned.
Velma Thomas Fann: It's privately owned.
Peter Biello: Do those who live in the house that she once lived in know the significance?
Velma Thomas Fann: I don't think they do.
Peter Biello: So there's someone in Savannah right now — I mean, I'm sure there are a lot of people in Savannah living in historically significant homes — but, wow, they don't know.
Velma Thomas Fann: So I'll have to send them a letter and say, please come to the unveiling. She lived there.
Peter Biello: All right. Well, if you live on, what is it, East Henry Street or East Broad?
Velma Thomas Fann: East Broad Street.
Peter Biello: If you live on East Broad Street, watch your mailbox.
Velma Thomas Fann: I'm sorry. East Henry Street. Yeah. Watch Your mailbox is East Henry and East Broad.
Peter Biello: Was there anything We didn't talk about that maybe we should have?
Velma Thomas Fann: I usually like to pay tribute to her with a song, if you don't mind.
Peter Biello: Is it a song that she sang or is it a...
Velma Thomas Fann: Mm-mm. It's a song that Black women sing.
Peter Biello: Please. We would love to hear it.
Velma Thomas Fann: [Singing] May the work I've done speak for me. May the work I've done speak for me. When I've done the best that I can and nobody understands, may the work I've done speak for me.
Peter Biello: That's beautiful.
Velma Thomas Fann: Thank you.