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From daily mobility to Civil Rights, cars tell the story of Savannah in surprising ways — and are the subject of a collaboration between the City and Telfair Museums


Frederick C. Baldwin (American, B. 1929); The Ballot Bus II, 1963; Gelatin silver print; Museum purchase, 2009.3.5; ©Frederick Baldwin // PHOTO TAKEN IN SAVANNAH
A car on West Broad Street (now Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard) cruises past Union Station a year before it was demolished in 1963 to make room for I-16.

Some local body shops and dealers are practically as old as the automobile itself. J.C. Lewis Ford dates back to 1912, nearly 25 years before Henry Ford chose Richmond Hill as the site for his winter home — a sprawling, 7,000-square-foot mansion made from Savannah grey brick and set on 55 acres. In 1917, Hollingsworth Auto Service opened, providing repairs in downtown Savannah continuously operating from the same location on Montgomery Street since 1973. 

LEFT: West Broad Street (now Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard) ca. 1915-1926

Frederick C. Baldwin (American, B. 1929); Civil Rights Workers Posing with Ballot Bus, 1963; Gelatin silver print; Museum purchase, 2009.3.6; ©Frederick Baldwin // PHOTO TAKEN IN SAVANNAH

Once considered solely luxury items, cars became accessible for more of the U.S. population beginning in the 1920s thanks to mass production (see page 45 to learn about Raymond Demere, who saw an opportunity with the founding of his oil company). Family-owned Southern Motors opened in 1929 amid the increased demand, now specializes Hondas. Dan Vaden started his namesake company, Dan Vaden Chevrolet, in 1968 — just in time for cars to expand the literal and figurative freedom of Savannahians.

More Than Just a Car

“In my mind, it’s no coincidence that many of the key moments of the civil rights movement occurred around transportation in the South,” says Telfair Museums assistant curator Anne-Solène Bayan. “Jim Crow laws, enforced consistently and brutally in the South, segregated most aspects of Black Americans’ lives and disenfranchised a large portion of the population.” But car ownership, Bayan says, was “a way to escape racial discrimination and violence.” For one thing, private car ownership made bus boycotts possible, while also allowing Black citizens to bypass the humiliations and hardships often associated with public transportation.  

Bayan planned Telfair Museums’ Vehicles of Change exhibit, focusing on the pivotal role of the automobile in advancing societal and political revolutions. Although such change happened throughout the South, Savannah’s so-called “Ballot Bus” — in fact, a car — took people to the polls as part of the Chatham County Crusade for Voting, spearheaded by activist Hosea Williams. According to Stanford University’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, CCCV was part of the larger Southeastern Georgia Crusade for Voters; Williams was the organization’s president, and it was an affiliate of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Private cars are also in the fabric of Savannah traditions like the Saint Patrick’s Day parade and The Great Savannah Races, prompting a joint effort between Telfair Museums and the City of Savannah to launch #AutosInTheArchives on Instagram. Follow @cityofsavannah to see more historic photos of automobiles.

Frederick C. Baldwin (American, b. 1929); Success, West Broad Street, 1963; Gelatin silver print; Museum purchase, 2009.3.18; ©Frederick Baldwin // PHOTO TAKEN IN SAVANNAH