The Massie School is named for Peter Massie (1765-1840), a humble Scottish immigrant to Georgia in the late 1700s, who went on to amass a small fortune as the master of Bonaventure Plantation in Glynn County. When he died in 1840, he owned over sixty slaves and hundreds of acres of land in Georgia and New Jersey. In his will, he left $5,000 each to the city of Savannah, to Glynn County, and to the city of Elizabeth, New Jersey, for the establishment of free schools for the poor. After several years of litigation with Massie's heirs, the city of Savannah secured the bequest and invested the funds in both the Central Rail Road and Canal Company and the Savannah Gas Light Company. By the early 1850s, the value of the original donation had more than doubled to $14,008, which was sufficient for the construction of a “common school" for the poor white children of Savannah. John Norris, noted architect of several prominent buildings in Savannah, was hired in 1855 to build the school on the newly established Calhoun Square. Norris employed the popular Greek Revival style on a residential scale and completed the building in time for students to begin at Massie in October 1856.
To support the staff of six and about 240 students, the city of Savannah provided most of the funding for the school's operation, but about a fifth of the students also contributed by paying tuition. A board of three commissioners was established in 1857 to oversee the school and its staff. Under the leadership of this board and the first principal, Bernard Mallon, the Massie Common School operated well enough to establish a good reputation far beyond Savannah. Both boys and girls attended the school but they were separated on the playground and in the classroom, where boys sat on one side of the room and girls on the other. Having boys and girls in the same school or classroom was considered a progressive move at the time and was not without controversy in some quarters.
With the arrival of General William T. Sherman's 60,000 Union soldiers in December of 1864, Massie ceased to operate as a school, and was instead converted into a hospital for the occupying army. The winter of 1864-65 was particularly cold and Union soldiers used classroom furniture and other inappropriate combustibles in place of scarce coal in the school's furnace, which was ruined as a result. In the spring of 1865, Massie was re-designated as a school for black children, but these students were soon re-assigned elsewhere and white students returned to Massie in their place. In 1866 all public schools in Savannah and Chatham County were consolidated under a new school board, three members of which were the Massie commissioners. To accommodate a growing student population after the war, a western annex was added in the same style as the original building in 1872, and a matching eastern annex followed in 1886.
In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, Massie was well-established at the forefront of public education in Savannah. It continued to thrive as a public school for white children for several decades before and after the turn of the century under the leadership of principals J.E. Way and Gustavus J. Orr, whose father of the same name was well-known as an early leader of the public school movement in Georgia. However, with the coming of the Great Depression in the 1930s there was a drive to tear down the old school which was seen as a maintenance liability, and replace it with a larger, more efficient facility. Supporters of Massie were able to defeat these attempts but the long-term future of the school remained in doubt. Calls for closure continued into the 1950s, and by the late 1960s the school board established a committee to explore possibilities for Massie's future. Around that same time, Massie began admitting African-American students for the second time in its history.
At the end of the 1974 school year, the Massie School ended its mission as a public school after 118 years of service, due to declining enrollment, among other continuing issues. After closing, Massie was briefly used as storage facility for the school system, while the school board continued to seek a new role for the facility. Former superintendent Saxon Pope Bargeron led the effort to re-purpose Massie as a “Heritage Interpretation Center" for the students of Savannah and Chatham County, as well as the general public. The curriculum would be focused on the history of Savannah, particularly through the use of the cultural resources of the National Landmark Historic District, which includes Massie. Critical support for this transition came from the Friends of Massie Committee, established in the fall of 1975, under the leadership of preservationist Emma Adler. In 1977 Massie was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Around this same time, the architectural firm of Gunn & Meyerhoff completed an extensive restoration and rehabilitation of the historic building. Additionally, a “Heritage Teacher" position was created specifically to develop and deliver interpretive programs for students.
For nearly four decades, the Massie Heritage Center has continued to provide interpretive programs both inside the facility with educational exhibits and outside on the streets and squares of Savannah's downtown historic district. Program topics have included: local history, architecture, city planning, character education, the history of public schools, and heritage education. The May Day Festival, an annual event at Massie since its earliest days, has continued each spring on Calhoun Square. Massie has also hosted various workshops, including a statewide conference on heritage education in 1985. The annual Georgia history celebration held each February in Savannah began at Massie and continued here until 1997, when the Georgia Historical Society began coordinating the event, which still includes participation by Massie. Several prominent visitors have spoken at Massie over the years, including Antoinette Lee, Lynne Cheney, and Diane Ravitch. Massie has been recognized for its work in education and in historic preservation by the National Trust, the Georgia Trust, and the Georgia Humanities Council.