On January 1, 1923, Westly Wallace Law was born in Savannah, Georgia to parents Westly Law and Geneva Wallace. W.W. Law was the eldest of three children and grew up in poor conditions on the West side of Savannah. Around the age of ten, his father died so he began working to help support his family. During this early phase of his life and even throughout his life, he was greatly influenced by his mother, his grandmother, Ralph Mark Gilbert, and John S. Delaware. The influence of John Delaware led him to become a member of the NAACP Youth Council as a high school student. During this time he participated in a desegregation protest at Savannah’s Grayson Stadium, and also participated in the hiring of a black disc jockey at a white-owned radio station. He attended Georgia State College, which is now Savannah State University, where he became the president of the NAACP Youth Council; while he was serving his community he and his mother were working where they could to pay for Law’s education. Law’s mother washed and ironed clothes for white families while Law worked at what was considered Savannah’s white YMCA. After his freshman year of college, he was drafted into the U.S. Army to serve as a soldier in World War II. He served three years in the Army which helped to pay for his education, meaning neither he nor his mother needed to work to pay for his education.
Law earned his bachelor’s degree in biology, he then gained a job at the Savannah Postal Service, a job he would hold for over thirty years. In addition to working for the postal service, he served as the scoutmaster for Savannah’s Boy Scout Troop 49, taught Sunday School, and was still the president of the local NAACP chapter. W.W. Law, along with Reverend L. Scott Stell and a committee of others filed a segregation lawsuit against the Chatham County Schools; Chatham County is the county Savannah resides in. The lawsuit was filed before the U.S. district court, U.S. district judge Frank Scarlett oversaw the lawsuit, but Judge Scarlett and others held the case up so long that the group of students the lawsuit was filed to help graduated from high school. Law and his committee had to refile their lawsuit supporting a different group of students; the objective of the lawsuit was to desegregate the public schools in Savannah. Because of the persistence of the Law and his committee, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the desegregation of Savannah’s public schools. Law believed in non-violent resistance to oppression, he would hold weekly meetings at Bolton Street Baptist and St. Phillip A.M.E. churches to organize his non-violent movement.
In 1960, an NAACP member was arrested for attempting to dine at the Azalea Room lunch counter. Law’s organizational and mobilizational skills were exceptional, he led a boycott against the restaurant, several protests, and wade-ins throughout Savannah and on Tybee Island. The protesters were relentless, launching protest after protest, which ultimately led to an eighteen-month boycott of Savannah’ Broughton Street. The boycott had a significant economic impact, the city of Savannah and the white merchants were forced to desegregate their businesses. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, while Law was leading non-violent boycotts and sit-ins, his contemporary Hosea Williams held a different ideology, Williams believed black people should be protecting themselves, he even created night watches to protect black neighborhoods, Law believed the night watches invited white racist to be violent against them. The relationship between Law and Williams became strained so much that Williams and his supporters left the NAACP and became members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. During the Mayor ship of Malcolm Maclean, Law and other NAACP members were able to win more desegregation battles, desegregating the library, restaurants, public parks, and other public places. The work of Law and the NAACP allowed black people in Savannah to have more access to the city and its resources.
In 1961, Law was fired from his postal service job for his desegregation efforts, the NAACP, and even President John F. Kennedy supported Law and worked to help him regain his job after a decision was made by a three-person panel. Law retired from the Postal Service in 1976, his next mission was the preservation of the African-American history of Savannah. The Savannah-Yamacraw Branch of the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History was founded by W.W. Law to preserve Savannah’s black history. Under the leadership of Law, the association was also able to found the Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum, Negro Heritage Trail Tour, King-Tisdell Cottage Museum, and the Beach Institute of African American Culture. Because of Law, the African-American history of Savannah is preserved and accessible to people today. Because of his civil rights and historic preservation efforts, Law was honored by receiving the Governor's Award in the Humanities, an honorary doctorate degree from Savannah State University, the National Trust for Historic Preservation's National Preservation Award, and the Distinguished Georgian Award (1998) from the Center for the Study of Georgia History at Augusta State University. Law died in 2002, but his mark on Savannah is still visible to this day. I recently took a trip to Savannah, Georgia where I learned about W.W. Law and was able to literally see the sites and learn the black history of Savannah. I was a part of a Savannah Black Heritage Tour led by a gentleman who was mentored by W.W. Law, so Law’s legacy still lives on and will continue to live. To Mr. Westly Wallace Law, we proudly stand on your shoulders.
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