In 1831, workmen finished the details on the newly built house on the northwest corner of Barnard and Hull. Even at that early date in Georgia history, the Minis family had already logged nearly 100 years in Savannah. Isaac Minis, son of a colonial period Whig, and Dinah Cohen Minis, granddaughter of Charleston’s first Rabbi, moved their large family into the spacious home on Orleans Square.
The Minis family has been an intricate part of the early Jewish-American story. That the house which provided a connection to that history no longer stands is a grave disappointment. The demolition of the house was, of course, a double ‘punch in the gut’ for Savannah, as it too was yet another loss for the graceful urban landscape the city now prizes.
That it’s possible to reconstruct the federal style house, and no less upon its original site, is a blessing, thanks going to the FDR era Works Project Administration, whose photographs and drawings of the house are available for us today.
It is one of a handful of structures which could and should be restored to their sites on squares that have been decimated by earlier misguidance. In the case of the Minis House, it also is a chance to bring to life a piece of Savannah’s history little recounted to her fans. The authentically rebuilt house, while not the original, would nevertheless be the perfect vessel in which to present details of that history.
From tending to the malarial ills among Georgia’s first settlers . . . to guiding the Continental and French armies through its tidal rivers . . . to hosting Lt. Robert E. Lee and . . . to establishing Georgia as the Peach State, there lies more than enough interesting tales of these Georgians to regale anyone who roams the squares of Savannah in search of the unheralded stories of the South. That these particular stories are of Jewish-Americans, and moreover Jewish-Southerners, would surprise most any visitor.
Just recently, Philadelphia was gifted with a unique facility, the National Museum of American Jewish History. The museum is sited on Independence Mall near the city’s well known and highly visited historical points of interest. But, while Philadelphia is a fine host for a national museum, here is a fact worth noting: the historical sites along Independence Mall are relics of the colonial and revolutionary time period in American history, a period in which there was as much, if not more, Jewish-American life and activity in the South as anywhere in the Americas.
Savannah is home to the nation’s third oldest Jewish congregation, despite Georgia’s founding occurring late in the colonial period, a whole century after Virginia, New York and colonies in New England were established.
In nearby, Charleston, there lived the nation’s largest Jewish community up until 1810, and the South continued to be home to a significant portion of the Jewish-American population through the end of the century.
The American colonial Jewish experience has been virtually lost in the shadow of the large number of European Jews who immigrated into the Northeast in the early 20th century. It is the tales of this latter group that have come to embody the whole of Jewish history in America. Most Americans, as well as Jewish-Americans, have virtually no notion that Jews ever existed in the South before the modern era, let alone at the very founding of one of the colonies.
Who would have guessed that the second oldest extant synagogue in the nation is in Charleston, or that its congregation was the first in America to adopt Reformed Judaism? Who would have thought that there were Jews fighting as Patriots in the American Revolution, let alone that a Georgian was the highest ranking Jewish officer in the American Continental Army?
One national museum can not, alone, do justice to the 400 years of Jewish-American history and, as but one museum in one city, it has a limited reach. There is both a need and an opportunity for a museum in Savannah to herald a portion of that history.
Savannah is not only a unique part of this Southern history but it is now one of the most visited urban historic districts in the nation. The 2.5 million over-night leisure visitors to the city, each year, are eager to not only enjoy the beautiful environs of Old Savannah, but also want to be entertained by the stories of those who built the city, lived in its squares and worked in the buildings along Factors’ Row.
The high visitation which Savannah enjoys is also a chance to inform, educate and enlighten a wide audience of the often overlooked contributions of Southerners of the Jewish faith and their participation in early American life.
A Worthy Purpose
There are several American Jewish heritage/historical groups in the U.S., but only a hand full of these are focused upon the South or a part thereof. Facilities for presenting that history in the South are few, barely attracting Jewish-Americans, and, largely, not well positioned for educating a wider audience. Two organizations identify the South as their focus, a few state based organizations are in the South and several of the oldest synagogues in the region have internal museums.
The Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life is an ambitious organization, but its focus is in providing religious and historical education for the Jewish communities of the South, in particular those in smaller cities and rural areas. Its offices are in Jackson, Mississippi, and it has operated two museum sites.
Its original museum site, currently being relocated, is at a summer camp site for Jewish youth near Utica, Ms. The other museum location is in Natchez, Ms., a 1905 synagogue no longer used for services. Both sites are open by appointment only, indicating their sparse visitation level.
The Southern Jewish Historical Society is a 35 year organization with no facility of its own. Members attend annual conferences in cities across the region; there have been three in Savannah. Their collection of archives are stored and available for research at the College of Charleston. While its focus is historical research and record preservation, its holdings likely include artifacts of historical note.
The William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum in Atlanta has no formal statement expressing any geographical or period focus, however its current collection and exhibits are primarily Georgia related, and more specifically Atlanta. Its facility for archival research and its museum is located in midtown Atlanta, but while the city gets millions of visitors each year, neither the characteristics of that visiting market (mostly convention or sports related) nor the placement of the museum are well suited for garnering much attendance.
Likely, the best museum of Jewish history in the South is the Jewish Museum of Maryland in Baltimore. It contains one of the oldest synagogues in the U.S. as a part of its museum, and is well located amid other well visited historical sites in the city.
Maryland is not always thought of as the South and neither is the District of Columbia, but I’ll add here the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington. With its very local focus, and being amid the massive museum industry in Washington, it gets little or no notice from the visiting public.
Much farther south, in Miami, the Jewish Museum of Florida looks to be a promising facility for collecting and displaying items of historical value to that state. Yet, its position in the South Beach area of Miami Beach, where history is not much on the agenda, makes it less promising as a means for disseminating this history to even Jewish tourists visiting Miami Beach, let alone to non-Jewish tourists.
Disappointingly, none of these facilities are housed in a former Jewish home; all, but the Breman Museum in Atlanta, are centered in part or in whole on a synagogue, as if the entirety of a Jewish life is spent in synagogue. This is a major flaw in the current crop of Jewish museums in the U.S, which likely prevents these educational opportunities from reaching a wider audience. Thus, not only is location critical to sharing these great stories, so is the vessel from which they are offered.
The historic district of Savannah is an excellent location for getting the Jewish-American story in front of a wide audience and, outside of the preservation of records and artifacts, that should be a chief goal of these history oriented organizations. However . . . merely having a building with a sign that reads ‘Southern Jewish History Museum’ is no more inviting to those who are not Jewish than a building labeled ‘Southern Catholic History Museum’ is to those not Catholic.
As much as the word ‘historic’ is used in almost every utterance of anything Savannah, the astute Savannahan recognizes that history is not the city’s main attraction. The main draw is the city’s look, its unusual urban beauty, which disappeared from most American cities as economics and cold modern architecture either replaced or smothered gems of the past.
After its beauty, popular history still must take a back seat to the history which is not found in school text books. It is the personal stories of common folk and the often uncommon experiences set against well known historical backgrounds which intrigue visitors to Savannah. The Minis House would have more stories to draw upon than all of the city’s other house-museums combined. The Minis family can aptly claim to be Georgia’s First Family, as Isaac’s father, Philip, is recognized as being the first born male among the colonists in their new home.
The 18th Century
Abraham and Abigail Minis, with their two eldest daughters, and other Jewish immigrants, the Sheftalls, DeLyons and Nunes, stood alongside non-Jewish immigrants in 1733, when General Oglethorpe gathered the settlers to name its first squares and streets.
In fact, in the first few years of the colony Jews made up a substantial portion of the population.
Abigail Minis, Isaac’s grandmother, was a force to be reckoned with in colonial Savannah. After the death of her husband, she took over the family’s business matters and even operated a tavern in the city. Her son, Philip, who had fled the city upon its capture by the British in late 1788, returned nearly a year later to guide the Allied (American and French) Armies through the tidal waters south of the city as they prepared for an assault on the British.
Prior to the war, Philip had married Judith Pollock of Newport, R.I. Most likely the wedding took place in the Touro Synagogue of Newport, which is the country’s oldest extant synagogue. Although her family in Rhode Island were Loyalists, Mrs. Judith Pollock Minis was outspokenly hostile to the British military regulars in Savannah.
The Minis family was as well involved in the spiritual side of the Jewish community, and when Savannah’s Mickve Israel congregation resumed activity, after disruption by years of political conflict and war, Philip Minis was elected to be its Parnass.
The 19th Century
In 1821, Isaac Minis and his eldest son, Philip, boarded the SS Savannah for New York City, little knowing that it would be the ship’s last voyage. The SS Savannah will forever have a place in American history, as it was the first to use steam power in crossing the Atlantic Ocean. While on its famous 1819 voyage, it hosted royalty as it toured among European ports displaying America’s use of technology.
By the time the Minis’ took their trip north, the ship had been stripped of its engines to allow for more cargo room, and thus was dependent upon wind and sail as she neared her destination on a stormy night. The Captain misjudged the distant lights and the ship ran aground at Fire Island, a small barrier island fronting New York’s Long Island. The crew and its three passengers were safe and most of the ship’s cargo of cotton was subsequently salvaged, but the ship’s location rendered it a loss.
A young Army Lieutenant fresh out of West Point, Robert E. Lee spent time in Savannah while he was stationed at nearby Cockspur Island from late 1829 to April 1831, absent only during a summer sojourn to Virginia. While not attending to his engineering assignment on the island, which was to construct the foundations for a coastal fort (Fort Pulaski), he enjoyed the company of new friends in the city.
In Savannah, his introductions came by way of his good friend and West Point classmate, Savannah native Jack Mackay. The city’s social scene included the Minis family, who would occasionally play host to Lieutenant Lee, with daughters Sarah and Philippa drawing his attention. Minis descendants are in possession of two drawings made by Lee and given to Sarah Ann Minis.
The following year, 1832, son Philip, then age 27 and a newly made doctor, was publicly disparaged by a state politician and former Savannah resident, who was then visiting and lodging at The City Hotel on Bay Street (today’s Moon River Brewing Company). A requested apology was not forthcoming, prompting Dr. Minis to request a duel, thus engaging the family in that mostly Southern institution of honor by gunfire.
Though an agreement on location and terms had not been reached, the Dr.’s opponent appeared at the time and site of his own choice, then later publicly ridiculed the Doctor for failing to show. Word of his pronouncement soon spread and before the day’s end Dr. Minis fired a deadly shot in the City Hotel. The subsequent ‘murder’ trial engaged virtually every attorney in the city on one side or the other.
In 1833, Sarah Ann Minis sat for a portrait by famed painter Thomas Sully, a year before marrying Dr. Isaac Hays of Philadelphia, the nephew of the inimitable Rebecca Gratz. The marriage was the first of three that would entwine the Minis household with the Gratz family of Philadelphia. Later, this North-South extended family situation would lead to stress as regional loyalties took hold.
The end of the war between the states did not come soon enough for the Minis family to avoid a grievous loss. With two grandsons in military service for the Union, Dinah Minis received news in March of 1865 that her brother’s son, Gratz, had been killed in North Carolina. He was the only son of Solomon and Miriam Cohen, shot in the head by a Union soldier who had only two months earlier been encamped on one of Savannah’s squares.
The Minis House could well be thought of as the Minis-Cohen House. Dinah Cohen Minis was the oldest child of a large family in South Carolina. At least three of her siblings settled in Savannah, with homes and families only blocks from Orleans Square, two of those houses still stand.
Nearby, also, were the Sheftalls, virtual cousins of the Minis family who lived only two blocks to the west. The Sheftall house has been moved from its west-side location and now houses the Historic Savannah Foundation on Columbia Square.
Envisioning The Future
The scope of a Jewish-American history museum in Savannah will be determined by the interest of those who take up this opportunity. Its coverage can be broad, or narrow, in geography and/or time periods. In any case, this is a great chance for the whole of Savannah to both gain an outstanding museum and regain a piece of the city’s 19th century beauty.
Restoration of the Minis House on Orleans Square will be a significant step in recouping the charm once enjoyed by all who visited that sector of the city. More than half of the Square’s surroundings have been lost over time to short sighted economic decisions.
The elegant Champion-McAlpin home still anchors the east side of the square, and its exterior was just recently used for a Civil-War era film, ‘The Conspirator’. The Bulloch Mansion once graced the west side of the square for nearly a century, and it is hoped parties with a historical interest in the house can be found to return that piece of the city.
Savannah has long been focused upon preservation and restoration, and now, before original sites are lost, it should work toward restoring some of the city’s missing pieces.
Had the congregants of the Independent Presbyterian Church not acted to recoup what they’d lost when their place of worship was destroyed by fire in 1889, we would not now enjoy the structure that graces the corner of Bull and Oglethorpe. The John Holden Green designed edifice was rebuilt from original plans.
When I began to explore the lost surroundings of Orleans Square, I was totally unaware that there were Jews among the first settlers of Georgia, let alone aware of the important contributions they’d made in the early progress of the state.
While Jewish immigrations into the South drastically stagnated after the 18th century, that there was an identifiable Jewish ‘community’ of any size in Georgia upon its founding is a story worth telling, particularly because of the contrast with the modern perceptions of Jewish-American history as being purely a ‘big city’ story of the Northeast.
Aside from individual contributions, the Jewish communities in both Savannah and Charleston provided an important role in the South and nationally by their inter-relations with the Jewish communities in Newport, RI, New York City and Philadelphia. Their very presence and active religious activities expanded the breadth of religious diversity in the new world at an early stage, no doubt helping to advance religious tolerance and religious freedom as a right guaranteed by law.
These stories, unlike any other, emphasize that those who supported the American colonial rebellion were in fact a multi-cultural and multi-faith mosaic of people. That is a story that is likely to get lost in a National Museum covering 400 years and 50 states.
Aside from the opportunity to present this history, the house could be the center piece of a larger facility which would serve as a repository for the archives of the Southern Jewish Historical Society and a research center.
We are well blessed that the WPA’s Historic Buildings Survey selected the Minis house as one to document in 1934. Photos along with good drawings are in that collection, located in the Library of Congress; under Chatham County/Savannah and Item #80. Also to be found are a few photos in the collection of the Georgia Historical Society.
Let’s hope the foresight and professional work of the Works Project Administration can now bear fruit, a result that will not only be a major reversal of fortune for Orleans Square, but will shed light on a chapter of Savannah’s history long shuttered away.
Museum of Southern Jewish-American History
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