Renaissance and Depression
In the Roaring Twenties, that boom period following World War I, both Charleston and Savannah entered the world stage and made some of their most significant cultural contributions to American life. The “Charleston” dance, originated on the streets of the Holy City and popularized in New York, would sweep the world. The Jenkins Orphanage Band, often credited with the dance, traveled the world, even playing at President Taft’s inauguration.
In the visual arts, the “Charleston Renaissance” took off, specifically intended to introduce the Holy City to a wider audience. Key work included the Asian-influenced work of self-taught painter Alice Ravenel Huger Smith and the etchings of Elizabeth O’Neill Verner. Edward Hopper was a visitor to Charleston during that time and produced several noted watercolors. The Gibbes Art Gallery, now the Gibbes Museum of Art, opened in 1905.
Recognizing the cultural importance of the city and its history, in 1920 socialite Susan Pringle Frost and other concerned Charlestonians formed the Preservation Society of Charleston, the oldest community-based historic preservation organization in America.
In 1924, lauded Charleston author DuBose Heyward wrote the locally set novel Porgy. With Heyward’s cooperation, the book would soon be turned into the first American opera, Porgy and Bess, by George Gershwin, who labored over the composition in a cottage on Folly Beach. Ironically, Porgy and Bess, which premiered with an African American cast in New York in 1935, wouldn’t be performed in its actual setting until 1970 because of segregation laws.
In Savannah, the Roaring Twenties coincided with the rise of Johnny Mercer, who began his theater career locally in the Town Theater Group. In 1925, Flannery O’Connor was born in Savannah, and the quirky, Gothic nature of the city would mark her later writing indelibly.
The Depression hit the South hard, but since wages and industry were already behind the national average, the economic damage wasn’t as bad as elsewhere in the country. As elsewhere in the South, public works programs in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal helped not only to keep locals employed, but contributed greatly to the cultural and archaeological record of the area.
The Public Works of Art Project stimulated the visual arts, especially in Charleston, while the Georgia Writers Project published what is still one of the seminal oral histories of the Gullah/Geechee culture, Drums and Shadows. The Works Progress Administration renovated the old Dock Street Theatre in Charleston, and theatrical productions once again graced that historic stage. The Civilian Conservation Corps built much of the modern state park system in the area.
© Jim Morekis from Moon Charleston & Savannah, 4th Edition