Historic Milledgeville home of black teacher returns to teaching role

House offers tours, space rentals and exhibits

jgaines@macon.comFebruary 15, 2013 

MILLEDGEVILLE -- The former home of a pioneering black educator is once more serving an educational purpose. The Sallie Ellis Davis House on Clarke Street has been restored and turned into a cultural arts center, celebrating the history of black education and leadership in Middle Georgia.

Its front two rooms and hallway offer historical exhibits, while the back half is available for rent by classes and community groups.

“A lot of people have just been coming in, enjoying the center, and then deciding they want to have events here,” said Deitrah Taylor, program assistant at the house.

It’s operated by Georgia College & State University, which partnered with the Sallie Ellis Davis Foundation to renovate the house built in 1890.

Davis was born in Baldwin County to Josh Ellis and Elizabeth Brunswick in 1877, according to information from Georgia College. Her parents were a “prominent merchant, landowner and gentleman farmer” and an “African American mother.” She married businessman John Davis in 1911, and he died in 1920.

Sallie Ellis Davis went to Eddy School -- the only one in the area for black students during segregation – and went on to Atlanta University, according to her biography for Georgia Women of Achievement. She was inducted into that group in 2000.

Davis was the first black teacher in the region with a college degree, Taylor said.

Davis returned to Eddy School and began teaching even before her 1899 graduation from Atlanta University, and she continued working there for half a century, according to Georgia Women of Achievement. Georgia College’s history says Davis was Eddy School’s principal for 27 years, retiring in 1949.

She moved into the Clarke Street house in 1912 and remained until her death in 1950, according to Georgia College.

Others lived in the house until the 1980s, and the University System of Georgia’s Board of Regents bought it in 1989.

By then it was in “quite honestly, a state of ruin,” said Matt Davis, curator of the Old Governor’s Mansion, which is also operated by Georgia College and just two blocks up Clarke Street from the Sallie Davis house.

It took two years’ work to restore the house, including rebuilding an addition on the rear, which had burned, he said.

“You name it, it needed to be done,” Matt Davis said.

The Sallie Ellis Davis Foundation, which included some of her former students, formed in 1990 to turn the house into a museum. That group and Georgia College raised about $380,000 for the task.

“It was all raised privately,” Matt Davis said. “There were no state dollars that went into that.”

A new roof and foundation, and complete interior restoration -- plus a small catering kitchen and Wi-Fi-enabled classroom -- were the work of community volunteers, Georgia College students and foundation members.

“It was a true community effort, both from the university’s standpoint and also from Milledgeville’s,” Matt Davis said.

The house, a rare survival from the black middle class, has been fully open for about six months, Taylor said. The front two rooms and hallway give a look into Sallie Ellis Davis’ life and career. The parlor, which still holds some of her furniture, became a community center where she chaperoned dates and let neighbors listen to Joe Louis’ boxing matches, Taylor said.

Davis’ former bedroom is now a re-created classroom with student desks and a “Negro instruction manual,” outlining the curriculum of a century ago, Taylor said.

The hallway holds exhibits about the local black community and the house’s restoration. In the back are the modern classroom and an event space, which now holds a “Showing the Way” exhibit from the Tubman African American Museum. It describes Macon’s black leaders from 1824 to 1933.

Van Woods, a niece of Sallie Ellis Davis, came to that exhibit’s opening reception and told stories, Taylor said.

“We’ve had descendents of Sallie come from time to time,” she said.

More events are scheduled, and tours are available, Taylor said.

To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489.

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