The history of Savannah is, well, complicated. There is a history we hear most often, of a city founded in 1733 along the Savannah River, laid out in squares by founder General James Oglethorpe. This final American colony was named Georgia after King George II of England.
During the antebellum period, Savannah became a city of wealth and prominence. Along those perfect squares gorgeous mansions were built beneath towering oaks dripping with Spanish moss. A genteel society flourished before General William Tecumseh Sherman presented the city to Abraham Lincoln as a Christmas present at the end of the Civil War.
The city of Savannah was designated a historic landmark in 1966. The Historic Savannah Foundation set out to preserve the buildings and their inhabitants.
But there is another history of Savannah, one that is not as well known, but growing in interest and prominence. It’s the story of the Gullah Geechee people: African slaves brought to the city from the rice and grain regions of Sierra Leone in Western Africa to work the plantations that produced the city’s wealth.
The Gullah Geechee story begins with the slave trade. In the beginning, Georgia did not allow slavery, and during the American Revolution slavery again took a break, but the practice became commonplace afterwards. By the start of the Civil War, enslaved Africans were a legal form of property, frequently used as collateral for business transactions.
Slavery was the largest non-import business in the city of Savannah. And although many thought the invention of the cotton gin would curb the practice, it only increased the demand for more enslaved laborers.
The slave state is certainly not something to be celebrated, but rather something to be mourned. It is, however, not something to be forgotten either. To get a true picture of the history of Savannah, you must understand the part slavery played in the city’s past, as well as the bravery and unbreakable spirit of the Gullah Geechee.
Here are more than twelve places to visit in Savannah to learn more about the peculiar institution, and Gullah culture. Be sure to contact museums prior to visiting. Some have uncommon hours, so be sure to confirm they are open during your visit.
River Street. Many Africans were brought into the states through the port of Savannah. Next time you visit Savannah, stand on one of the overpasses above the alleyways leading to River Street. Imagine what it must have been like for newly arrived Africans, packed into a wagon, as onlookers above inspected them like cargo. You can feel the ghosts of the past along those streets.
Largest Slave Sale Marker. In 1859 the largest slave sale in the nation took place in the city of Savannah. 436 men, women and children were put up for auction. Legend has it the skies opened and it rained the two days of the auction. The slaves said the heavens were crying and called it the weeping time. There is a plaque to commemorate the event at the corner of Augusta Avenue and Dunn Street.
Former Montmollin Building at City Market. Once the slave market owned by John Montmollin and Alexander Bryan, this building is now part of the trendy City Market business district. Many Gullah Geechee were marched up the stairs and sold here.
First African Baptist Church. This is one of the first black churches in North America. It was built by freed and enslaved blacks and has beautiful handmade pews and stunning chandeliers original to the building. It also has a mysterious past including potentially being a stop on the Underground Railroad.
Owens Thomas House. One of the most beautiful homes in Savannah’s historic district, this house also chronicles the real lives of 19th century Savannah, including urban slaves. The Owens-Thomas House has the original slave quarters for the dwelling. Be sure to look up. The blue paint on the ceiling is called haint blue, a color used by slaves to ward off evil spirits.
Laurel Grove Cemetery. Savannah has many famous cemeteries, but only a few open to blacks. Laurel Grove Cemetery interred more free blacks during slavery times than any other cemetery in the Southeast.
Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum. Ralph Mark Gilbert was the pastor of the First African Baptist Church, and the father of Savannah’s Civil Rights Movement. Don’t miss the interactive segregated lunch counter that presents both the Black and White points of view. In addition to moving exhibits inside the museum, the building itself has an interesting history. It was once the Wage Earners Savings and Loan Bank, the largest bank for blacks in the country.
King-Tisdell Cottage. A coastal black residence from the 1890’s, the King-Tisdell Cottage is now a museum of Black history.
Beach Institute. Located next to the King-Tisdell Cottage, the Beach Institute was a school for newly freed slaves. Now the Institute is an African-American Cultural Center with ever changing programs and exhibits.
Black Heritage Tours. The best way to learn about the African experience in Savannah is to take a guided tour. The Negro Heritage Trail Tour begins at the King-Tisdell Cottage. Or book a tour from Footprints of Savannah, Day Clean Journeys, Underground Tours of Savannah, or the Freedom Trail Tour. From slave markets, to secret underground railroad locations, to life as a freedman, these guided tour takes a look at the City of Savannah from the black perspective.
Lazaretto Tybee Island. Lazaretto Pier is a favorite spot for fishing and crabbing on Tybee Island, but few visitors realize the historical significance of the area and how the creek got it’s name.
Voyages from Africa to Savannah lasted between four and six months and during that time it was not uncommon for disease to take hold. Before entering the Savannah port, slaves were quarantined at a lazaretto (Italian for pest house) on Tybee Island. You can find a national historic landmark plaque at the mouth of Lazaretto Creek.
Gullah Geechee Role in the History of Savannah
The Gullah Geechee communities stretch from North Carolina to Florida. The Gullah language, also called Sea Island Creole English, was developed so plantation owners couldn’t understand what the slaves were saying.
After emancipation, these new freedmen stayed on the islands, creating their own close-knit communities. The isolated nature of the hot buggy land made for a unique experience surrounded by few whites. Residents remember fondly a small town coastal lifestyle that raised the likes of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Here are a few ways to learn more.
Pin Point Heritage Museum. You can’t get a true picture of Savannah history without a visit to the Pin Point Heritage Museum. Pin Point Island is home to Savannah’s Gullah community, and the museum gives visitors a look at the history and Gullah culture in Savannah. The museum is in the former A.S. Varn & Sons Oyster and Crab Factory. This is where many of the Gullah Geechee worked until it closed in 1985. Now those former employees showcase crafts like net making and share the inspirational sprit of the Gullah people.
Day Clean Tours. We’ve mentioned several African tours that showcase black history and heritage in Savannah. Day Clean Tours focuses on the Gullah Geechee culture. The name itself, Day Clean, is a Gullah phrase that means ‘new day’ or ‘dawn’. In addition to Day Clean, another good company is Footprints of Savannah.
Other Gullah Geechee Communities in Georgia
Sapelo Island. Visit the Gullah community of Hog Hammock.
Jekyll Island. A memorial to the 409 captive men, women and children who were brought to Jekyll Island on the slave ship Wanderer can be found at the St. Andrew’s Picnic Area.
Riceboro. The Geechee Kunda Cultural Center is on land that was once the Retreat Plantation
The Best AirBnB Stays in Savannah
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