Commemorates Savannah’s African-Americans
Location Rousakis Plaza, River Street
Artist Dorothy Spradley
Savannah’s African-American Monument honors the contributions of its black citizens to its history, economy and culture, and acknowledges the city’s role in the institution of slavery.
It represents an important step forward in the inclusion of slavery and the black experience in Savannah’s public monuments, and a reminder of the many contributions made by the enslaved people by whom much of Savannah, literally and figuratively, was built.
The City of Savannah publicly acknowledged its involvement in the institution of slavery in 2007, five years after the African-American Monument was unveiled. That same year, a second memorial to the black contribution to Savannah, the Haitian Monument, was unveiled in Franklin Square.
History Of The African-American Monument
The African-American Monument was designed by Savannah artist Dorothy Spradley. Standing nearly 11ft tall, with a granite base, it depicts, in bronze, a family of four African-Americans in modern dress, standing together with broken chains around their feet.
The figures are positioned to face towards Africa. They face also towards the Savannah River and the Atlantic Ocean, upon which they were shipped as chattel to their new fates and what would become their new country.
The monument was the result of the efforts of local educator Abigail Jordan, who thought that Savannah badly needed a monument representing slavery and its legacy, both too often downplayed in Savannah’s public image and spaces.
Jordan worked towards the creation of the memorial through the 1990s; the $350,000 cost of the monument was raised mostly by private donations.
Various controversies attended the planning and erection of the monument.
While many city residents agreed with Jordan about the need for a public monument to African Americans, many others – black as well as white – felt that slavery was an inappropriate subject, likely to cause distress and raise bad feelings between blacks and whites.
Others thought that the worst aspects of the South’s and Savannah’s history were best “forgotten,” or at least not thrust into obvious and permanent view, and particularly, the view of tourists.
For a lot of Savannah’s citizens, however, a monument to slavery was a necessary counterpoint to the monuments built over the centuries, largely by and for whites, in which the contribution and experience of African Americans has been entirely overlooked.
After several years of fundraising and public discussions, Jordan had formed the African American Monument Association, which worked to finalise the plans for and secure the erection of Savannah’s new memorial; the city approved the sculpture in 1998, with a location yet to be chosen.
Its eventual location on River Street’s Rousakis Plaza is appropriate to that area’s history. River Street was the center of Savannah’s shipping and the trades in cotton and other crops which Africans were brought to America to produce. It is also the spot at which slaves disembarked from the ships that carried them from Africa.
Though Jordan preferred a different location near the current Hyatt Regency, the monument’s organizers and the city agreed to its positioning on Rousakis Plaza, a high traffic, prominent part of the city.
The source of the most disagreement was the inscription placed on the base of the monument.
The passage, taken from an unpublished work of the late African-American poet and author Maya Angelou, draws upon the horror and terror of their journey. It reads:
“We were stolen, sold and bought together from the African continent. We got on the slave ships together. We lay back to belly in the holds of the slave ships in each other’s excrement and urine together, sometimes died together, and our lifeless bodies thrown overboard together. Today, we are standing up together, with faith and even some joy.”
Many took exception to the powerful and graphic passage proposed. Some of Savannah’s black council members too found the chosen words too divisive and too upsetting for what was to be a very visible monument.
The final sentence of the inscription (“Today, we are standing up together, with faith and even some joy.”) was a later addition, adding a more positive endnote to a message thought in the end to be, if truthful, too bleak.
Derek H Alderman, ‘Surrogation and the politics of remembering slavery in Savannah, Georgia (USA),’ Journal of Historical Geography 36 (2010), pp90-101.