Whitefield Square is one of several of Savannah’s squares particularly significant in its African American history. On and around the square are two of Savannah’s historically black churches, Beth Eden Baptist and First Congregational. Whitefield Square was also built over the site of Savannah’s earliest graveyard for African Americans, free and slave.
Irish too lived in the vicinity of Whitefield Square in the 19th century, the Catholic St Joseph’s Hospital once occupying the site of the current Rose of Sharon apartment complex.
The surrounding Wesley Ward (bounded by Jones, Lincoln, Price and Gaston Streets) is notable today for its late-19th century Victorian architecture.
Whitefield is the most south-easterly of Savannah’s squares, located in the lower portion of the Historic District at the intersection of Habersham and East Wayne Streets. See on map
North of Whitefield is Troup Square and the nearby Beach Institute; west is Calhoun Square, location of the Massie Heritage Center and the Wesley Monumental Methodist Church, dedicated in honor of John Wesley and his brother Charles.
To the east and south of Whitefield Square are the border blocks of the Historic District, the highlight of which is the King-Tisdell Cottage, an African-American historic house and museum.
Both Whitefield Square and Wesley Ward were named for important figures in Savannah’s religious and early colonial history: George Whitefield (1714-1770) and John Wesley (1703-1791).
Wesley came to Savannah with his brother Charles soon after the founding of the colony of Georgia. The Wesleys would later take an important role in the founding of Methodism, though their careers were comparatively undistinguished during the few years they spent in the new colony.
John Wesley worked as a minister at Christ Church Episcopal, on Johnson Square, from 1736-1737 (Charles went to Frederica); he was succeeded by Whitefield, who had come to Savannah at Wesley’s suggestion. Whitefield and the Wesleys, both native Englishmen, had known each other before moving to America, having met at Oxford University.
Whitefield too spent only a short while in Savannah – long enough to establish the Bethesda orphan house at Isle of Hope – later traveling through the other American colonies. He became one of the country’s most famous Anglican preachers and one of the most influential figures in its religious “Great Awakening,” speaking regularly to enormous crowds.
Whitefield Square was the 24th and final square laid out in accordance with Savannah’s old city plan. The square and its ward were plotted out in 1851, along with Troup Square to its north and Calhoun Square to its west.
The square was built on a portion of the city common designated as a burial ground for African Americans. Officially, the graveyard was in the area now occupied by Whitefield Square, but burials were also made in the area round about – remains have been discovered under adjacent Calhoun Square too.
In 1853, the burial ground was officially closed, along with its white counterpart, the present-day Colonial Park Cemetery; a few of the people buried there were moved to the new Laurel Grove Cemetery, but most were left where they lay.
Many years commonly lapsed between the time when a new ward was officially designated and the first homes being built there, and more still until a good proportion of the lots had been sold and built upon.
In the case of Whitefield Square, Civil War intervened; most of the ward’s homes and buildings date from the later decades of the 19th century onward, as can be seen in the many examples of late-19th century wood frame architecture around the square and on its nearby streets.
Whitefield Square was once the site of St Joseph’s Hospital, operated by Savannah’s Sisters of Mercy. The hospital, then referred to as St Joseph’s Infirmary, was created on the spot to the northwest of the square around the late 1870s. It was expanded and renamed in 1901, with a new wing, the Flannery Memorial, opened in 1913.
St Joseph’s, situated near one of the city’s principal Irish districts, was a facility much-used by many of Savannah’s Irish Catholics in the earlier years of the century. In the 1960s, the hospital was moved to a more spacious site on Savannah’s south side. The historic buildings on Whitefield Square were later destroyed.
Two late-19th-century churches in this district catered to the many African-American residents of Savannah’s southeastern wards.
The First Congregational Church, built in 1895, stands on the northern west trust lot. An earlier wood frame church was built on the same site in 1869 by missionaries from the North who came to Savannah to teach its freed slaves at the newly formed Beach Institute.
Beth Eden Baptist Church, just to the west of Whitefield Square at the intersection of East Gordon and Lincoln Streets, was built for black Savannah Baptists in 1893. It was designed by Henry Urban in the Gothic Revival style.
Many of the houses around Whitefield Square and the neighboring streets are built in the “gingerbread” style of the later 19th century. Though the square was laid out in 1851, much of the development of the area took place after the Civil War and in the decades that followed.
The gingerbread style, also known as the stick style, is characterized by the extensive use of decorative wood and latticework to embellish the basic frame house. Many more examples of this style of architecture can be seen in Savannah’s Victorian Historic District, around the region south and east of Forsyth Park.
The woodwork architecture of the surrounding houses, particularly on the southeast sides, is also reflected in Whitefield Square’s central gazebo.
On-street parking will usually be easy to find in the vicinity of Whitefield Square.
The nearest stop on Savannah’s free shuttle is on Lafayette Square, around seven blocks walk from Whitefield. Some paid city bus services stop closer, along Price Street on the eastern margin of Wesley Ward. Get public transport directions