Correcting Bad History: The Willink House was not the Deveaux School (…but 513 East York was)


All research and commentary by Jefferson Hall

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The Willink House at 426 E. St. Julian Street has fallen prey to bad history.  My own knowledge of the property was initially spotty; I knew it had been built for a shipbuilder and later moved to its current location, and yet was also led to believe by a more recent tradition since the 1980s that it might have served as the site of the school run by Catherine and Jane Deveaux.  These conflicting (and chronologically overlapping) histories were difficult to reconcile, so I studied the tax digests at the Georgia Historical Society in February of 2003.  In summary, this investigation left me scratching my head as to where the notion that this was a school ever could have come from.  Not only did no member of the Deveaux family occupy the house between its construction in 1845 to the time I stopped checking records post-Civil War in 1866, but it remained the property of Henry Willink consistently every year throughout.  To put it simply, to mischaracterize a historically white-owned property as a pioneering underground school for children of color is a serious misrepresentation of history and needs to be corrected.

The Mary Morrison Book, Historic Savannah Building Survey, and the GHS Collection #1320 on which the Morrison Book was based, and tax digests (GHS Collection #5600CT 70) indicate that the Henry F. Willink House—today’s 426 E. St. Julian Street—was built in 1845.  Until 1964 it was located in Crawford Ward, Lot 37, facing Price between McDonough and Perry Streets, where it is clearly illustrated in the 1891 Birdseye View, depicted on the 1853 Vincent Map and on every Sanborn map beginning with the first in 1884.  Its address in today’s terms was 231 Price Street.  The November 19, 1964 Savannah Morning News published a picture (below) of the house being moved north on Price in preparation for it resettlement in Warren Ward.

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This is where the relocation issue comes into play:  the house spent 120 years in Crawford Ward.  Simply, Catherine Deveaux never owned any property in Crawford Ward.

It’s no mystery what properties the Deveaux family owned; these are easily found in the property tax digests.

Born about 1785 in the West Indies (probably Antigua), Catherine (or “Catharine”) Deveaux was an industrious woman; the Savannah newspapers between 1814 and 1820 regularly printed advertisements in which she promoted her occupations as a cook and the proprietor of a small boarding house. (Some of these advertisements may be found on another post within this blog.) By the March 11, 1828 Georgian she was identified as a 43 year-old seamstress, with two daughters—Elizabeth (aged 18) and Jane (aged 14); by the September 22, 1829 Georgian only she and Jane are listed.  After death Catherine’s estate thrived under the stewardship of Jane (c.1814-1885).  The family owned real estate in three wards between 1809 and 1866—properties in Warren Ward (Lot 11 and possibly Lot 10 between 1835-1837), Greene Ward (Lot 31) and Columbia Ward (Lot 35); she may also have had a short-term land-swap property in Reynolds Ward. The tax digests began in Savannah in 1809, and I checked every year of the tax digests between 1809 and 1866 and have appended below a transcription for every entry between 1809 and 1860.

The property in question in Crawford Ward, in the meantime, never leaves the ownership of Henry Willink, recorded faithfully every year in the tax digests.  The entire tradition of the Willink House as an underground school is a mistaken one with no shred of evidence to suggest it.  The house that likely WAS the school was the Deveaux family home at 513 East York.

Quoted from Charles L. Hoskins’ Yet With a Steady Beat, p. 164:


“…she [Jane Deveaux] conducted his school in a ‘story and a half house at the corner of Price and York streets.’ [Internal quote: Robert Gadsden lecture, Negro Savannah, 1952]


This is a description of Catherine and Jane Deveaux’s primary real estate at today’s 513 E. York Street, and there’s no reason to believe Professor Gadsden didn’t have it right when he mentioned this location seven decades ago.  Whittingdon Johnson suggested the Columbia Ward location may have been the family’s slave property (the family owned two slaves by 1841), and the Warren Ward lot was a shared property that last makes its appearance in the 1848 tax digest.  The only Deveaux-owned property still standing today, 513 East York Street—a property acquired by Catherine Deveaux c.1818 and whose current 1853 house was the family’s second or third version on the lot—appears to be the only contender for the site of the Deveaux school.

Here is a complete transcription of  50 years’ worth of entries in the tax digests recording the Deveaux family’s properties:


Catherine Deveaux pg1.jpg
Catherine Deveaux pg2.jpg
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Catherine Deveaux pg5.jpg

Here’s a visual recap I also put together…

Catherine Deveaux.jpg

Other posts featuring Catherine Deveaux and her legacy:

https://savannahhistory.home.blog/2019/10/21/fpcs-free-persons-of-color/

https://savannahhistory.home.blog/2021/02/21/black-ministers-educators-congressmen-of-19th-century-savannah/




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