Savannah has several key black heritage attractions, which are explicitly and primarily interpreted as sites of African-American history. Various other sights across the city, although not attractions in their own right, also illuminate facets of this history.
There are also many other attractions that deal with aspects of the historical black experience in Savannah as part of a broader narrative.
Savannah’s main black heritage attractions:
– First African Baptist Church
– Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum
– Pin Point Heritage Museum
– Laurel Grove Cemetery South
– King-Tisdell Cottage
– Beach Institute
African-Americans have formed a substantial portion of Savannah’s population since the later 18th century, but few physical relics of this earlier history survive into the present.
One hidden trace of Savannah’s black residents in times past lies beneath the city. Around the area now occupied by Whitefield and Calhoun Squares, was once an African-American cemetery, used for burials since the late 18th century until it was closed and built over in the middle of the following decade.
Though slaves often provided the labor for construction of Savannah’s homes and public buildings, few 18th-century structures have survived to the present day. Enslaved people were also employed to build most of the system of earthworks and fortified positions that once encircled the city.
Few signs of Savannah’s Revolutionary War fortifications survive (with the exception of the reconstructed Battlefield Park), but there is one monument to the contribution of people of African descent to Savannah’s – and American – freedom: the Haitian Monument, in Franklin Square, recently erected in honor of the more-than-500-strong Chasseurs-Volontaires, a regiment of free black soldiers recruited in the former French colony of Saint Domingue, present-day Haiti.
19th-century Savannah was highly integrated, with whites and blacks fairly evenly distributed throughout the city’s wards: often with whites living on the main streets and slaves and free blacks living in the lanes behind.
Nonetheless, there were some areas – particularly around the squares at the margins of the city – in which the concentration of African-American residents was higher. The streets in the vicinity of Greene Square, for example, were popular with Savannah’s free people of color from the early 19th century.
Many of the houses occupied by free black men and women survive to this day, such as the house of Second African Baptist Church founder Henry Cunningham on Greene Square or the Simon Mirault House, moved to its present Washington Square location from Troup Ward.
Savannah’s African-Americans created their own business districts too. By the 20th century, the most notable of these was the area around what was then West Broad Street (present-day Martin Luther King, Jr Boulevard). This vibrant commercial district grew around the former Union Station, constructed in the early 20th century and demolished 40 years later.
West Broad Street was not just a center of business, but also of Savannah’s Civil Rights movement. Three churches – St Philip AME, Bolton Street Baptist and Mount Zion Baptist – hosted Civil Rights meetings, as did the former West Broad Street YMCA and Savannah Tribune building. Savannah’s NAACP offices were also located along the street.
It is no secret that Savannah was built upon slavery, and particularly the vast wealth, in the form of cotton and rice, that passed through the city’s River Street warehouses and docks, and from there, to the North and to Europe. In its earlier history, Savannah was a node of the international slave trade too, receiving many shipments of captured Africans through its port.
For the most part, this aspect of Savannah’s history is not much acknowledged: one of the few sites in Savannah to explicitly reference the city’s history of slavery is the African-American Monument on River Street. Elsewhere, the legacy of slavery is less obvious.
Unlike at Charleston, 100 miles up the coast, the plantations near Savannah, upon which the majority of the region’s slaves lived and worked, have not been preserved. Most of the river plantations have been developed as industrial sites, the few former agricultural lands that remain are either in private hands or have reverted to nature, now conserved as wildlife areas.
In Savannah itself, most enslaved people worked in the homes of the wealthy. Some, primarily skilled artisans and tradespeople, were permitted to live alone and semi-independently under the “living-out” system. This class of slave generally worked for a wage, the majority of which was to be paid to their owner.
Some domestic slaves lived in the basement or ground floor of their owners’ homes, others in specialized slave quarters built in the rear of the main house. Few such accommodations have survived in their original form: the only restored example of urban slave quarters in Savannah today is at the Owens-Thomas House.
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First African Baptist Church, on Franklin Square, is one of the few edifices in Savannah that pre-Civil War African-Americans could claim as their own. Constructed entirely with black labor, with many members of the congregation coming to work on the project by night once their day in the fields was complete, the church was completed in 1859.
For the few years that remained until Emancipation, First African was also one of Savannah’s sites on the Underground Railroad (another was Fort Pulaski), the secret system of safe houses by which some escaped slaves were able to find their ways to freedom. Today, guided tours and a small museum discuss the church’s interesting and inspirational history.
The Green-Meldrim House, though it is not specifically interpreted as an African-American heritage site, was the location of Sherman’s historic meeting with several of Savannah’s black leaders, in which they together worked out the details of the famous Special Field Order 15, more widely known as the “40 acres and a mule” order.
The order was read to crowds assembled at one of Savannah’s historic black churches, the Second African Baptist Church on Greene Square. Besides its 40 acres fame, Second African Baptist later hosted Martin Luther King, Jr, where he gave an early version of his seminal “I have a dream” speech.
Two museums in Historic District Savannah explore the history of Savannah’s black citizens from the late 19th century onwards. The Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum on Martin Luther King, Jr Boulevard focuses mainly on the 20th century struggles for equality and the history of segregation in Savannah.
The King-Tisdell Cottage is a small museum located in a historic house, formerly owned by two representatives of Savannah’s black entrepreneurial class, Sarah and Eugene King. Its exhibits examine the Gullah-Geechee people of the lowcountry, the black experience in Savannah and the Civil Rights activist WW Law.
The Cottage is located in Savannah’s Beach Institute neighborhood, a historically African-American district named for the school constructed by the Freedmen’s Bureau to provide an education for the city’s former slaves.
Before the Civil War, it had been illegal to educate slave children, any learning confined to one of several clandestine schools operated out of sight of Savannah’s authorities. One such school was operated by Catherine and Jane Deveaux, whose former home still survives, a few blocks north of the Institute, near Warren Square.
Today, the Beach Institute serves as an African-American cultural center, home to a collection of art centered around the sculptures of local folk artist Ulysses Davis, and also offering art classes and occasional lectures and other special events.
Another of Savannah’s former African-American schools is the present-day Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum, located in one of the city’s most well-regarded historic homes, designed by William Jay for William Scarbrough in the early 19th century.
The museum itself is devoted to Savannah’s maritime history, but an online exhibit documents the history of the house as a segregated school for black children. Another online exhibit explores the history of the slave ship Wanderer.
A new exhibit at the Massie Heritage Center also looks into the history of African-American education in Savannah.
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Just outside of Savannah’s Historic District is one of Savannah’s most important sites of African-American history. The southern portion of Laurel Grove Cemetery, a segregated burial ground created in the 1850s as a replacement for the white Colonial Park Cemetery and the black Negro Burial Grounds, was the principal resting place for Savannah’s African-American citizens from the remaining few years of slavery through to the 20th century.
The cemetery is one of the largest African-American cemeteries in the South, and holds the graves of many of Savannah’s most significant and influential black citizens.
A little further afield, a few miles southeast of downtown Savannah, is one of the city’s newest and most unique museums, the Pin Point Heritage Museum. Located in a former oyster canning factory, the museum tells the story of Savannah’s predominantly Gullah-Geechee fishing and seafood-processing community at Pin Point.
Several tours in Savannah explore aspects of the city’s African-American history.
Walking tours, geographically centered around the River Street and upper Historic District, focus on the history of slavery and the slave trade in Savannah. Minibus tours are able to cover more of the city, and sometimes include admission to history attractions such as the Beach Institute or the Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum.