Although it is only a few steps away from busy Ellis Square and City Market, Franklin Square is somewhat off the tourist map.
Small, shaded and understated, its main attraction is the historic First African Baptist Church and the recently-installed Haitian Monument, commemorating the contribution of black soldiers to America’s War of Independence.
Franklin Square is at the intersection of Montgomery and West St Julian Streets, in the far north west of Savannah’s Historic District. Surrounding Franklin Ward is bounded by Martin Luther King, Jr Boulevard and Bay, Jefferson and Broughton Streets. See on map
Nearby sights and attractions:
Franklin Square and Ward are named for Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), one of the founding fathers of the United States and former agent of Georgia.
Benjamin Franklin, an early advocate of unity among the American colonies, is one of America’s most popular and commemorated figures, although his overall popularity in Georgia was perhaps more muted than in other states due to his support for the abolition of slavery from the 1750s onwards (prior to that he had himself owned and traded slaves). Franklin County, Georgia is also named in his honor.
In the two decades before American independence, Franklin spent much of his political career in London. He became one of the foremost advocates in Britain of the interests of the American colonies, and was influential in the repeal of the unpopular 1765 Stamp Act.
In 1768 Georgia officials appointed Franklin as the colony’s agent. The tasks of the colonial agent (in which role Franklin also served on behalf of New Jersey and Massachusetts) were to represent the colony’s interests in British parliament and to inform colonial officials of matters in Britain that affected the administration of that colony. Franklin served Georgia in this capacity until 1774, afterwards appointed by the Continental Congress as the first postmaster general.
Franklin had other specific ties to Savannah too, engaging in correspondence with influential local plantation owners such as Noble Wimberly Jones and Jonathan Bryan, to whom he gave advice and sent samples of a variety of Vietnamese rice he had encountered that could be grown on dry land.
Franklin Square, the westernmost of Savannah’s squares, was laid out in 1790, along with Washington Square on its then eastern margin.
Franklin Square is a historically significant place in Savannah’s African American history, as the site of the church of its joint-oldest congregation, First African Baptist (which shares its origins with First Bryan Baptist, a few hundred yards to the west).
For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, the square was also an important cultural and recreational space for the residents of Savannah’s predominantly black west side.
The site presently occupied by the First African church was originally used by a different congregation, the white First Baptist Church. The white worshippers erected their church building on the square from the late 18th century. Owing to financial difficulties, the work took many years. Franklin Square was then sometimes known as Baptist Church Square.
In 1820, Savannah was struck by one of its most devastating fires, which originated in a lot on Franklin Square. The flames spread across dozens of blocks, destroying much of the city.
In the early 1830s, the First African Baptist Church moved onto Franklin Square, having split from the original First African congregation. It purchased the building formerly used by the First Baptist Church for its own use, later erecting a new building on the same site. That church, built entirely by African-American labor, was completed in 1859.
In the early 1850s, the city erected a large water tower in the center of Franklin Square, which served as a distributing reservoir for the new municipal waterworks. That structure, which dominated the square for the next several decades, gave it the name by which it would often be known through the rest of the 19th century: Water Tower Square.
New water works constructed in the 1880s rendered the tower in Franklin Square obsolete. Although the enormous 54-foot brick structure, overshadowing the neighboring First African Baptist Church, was a serious eyesore, the city was in no rush to tear it down, apprehensive of the cost of its removal. Some members of council thought the city had better keep the tower in case it was ever needed again.
In 1900, after repeated lobbying by the Savannah Morning News, eager for the improvement of the square, the tower was finally removed.
A few years later, in 1916, Franklin Square became the site of one of Savannah’s very first playgrounds. Playgrounds were established across the country from around the turn of the century, considered an excellent way to improve the health and morals of the nation’s youth.
The children living in the vicinity of the square, which included many children from the impoverished and predominantly African-American Oglethorpe Ward, immediately west of the present Historic District, unfortunately had the use of their playground for less than two decades.
In the 1930s, the square was destroyed as part of a federal highway project. The route of US-17 was opened down Montgomery Street, which required the removal of all three of that street’s squares. All that remained of Franklin Square were two narrow strips of grass, to either side of the road.
By the later decades of the 20th century, however, preservation efforts in Savannah were in full swing. In the early 1980s, Savannah began to consider the possibility of restoring Franklin Square as part of a wider project to celebrate the city and Georgia’s semiquincentenary, or 250th anniversary.
In 1985, funds from the city and from the Historic Savannah Foundation were used to reclaim the square and restore the buildings around it. A monument to the black Chasseurs-Volontaires de Saint Domingue has recently been installed as the center-piece of the redeveloped square.
Franklin Square’s most historically significant building is the First African Baptist Church, situated on its northwestern trust lot. The congregation (together with nearby First Bryan Baptist) is the oldest African-American congregation in Savannah, and may be the oldest in the country.
The current building was completed in 1859, built at night by the church’s members. Many of its original interior elements – including pews constructed and inscribed by slaves – have been retained.
Historical tours of the church and its small museum are available. More details
Westward of Franklin Square, on Martin Luther King, Jr Boulevard is one of Savannah’s historic houses, the former home of William Scarbrough. Scarbrough was one of the primary investors in the historic SS Savannah, the first ship to cross the Atlantic under partial steam power.
For much of its history, the house was used as a school for African-American children, but today it is a museum of Savannah’s maritime heritage.
The monument in Franklin Square commemorates the contribution of over 500 free black Haitian troops, the Chasseurs-Volontaires de Saint-Domingue, to the fight against the British at the 1779 Siege of Savannah. It was unveiled in 2009.
Read more about the Chasseurs-Volontaires and the history of the monument.