Savannah’s Black community is the oldest in Georgia and its history is one of the most significant in the nation. If you’re a Black person born in the United States today, you may have ties to Savannah because the trans-Atlantic slave trade brought many African-Americans through the port of this southern coastal city. Slave labor in the cotton and rice fields helped to give Savannah its economic strength and many of the contributions of Blacks helped the city to thrive and develop into what it is today. African-American influences are vividly manifested in food, music, institutions, businesses and the culture of modern-day Savannah. Popular for its distinct architect, lush vegetation, garden parks, guided tours and unforgettable entertainment, as well as southern hospitality, Savannah also offers a rewarding experience in Black culture and heritage.
Savannah’s slave history is unique in that Blacks in captivity managed to get their masters to allow them limited freedom. It became fairly common for masters to give their slaves nominal freedom, allowing them to rent their own homes, live on their own and have freedom on the streets before curfew hours. However, the “quasi-free” slaves had to live and congregate in areas outside the city and they could not vote or hold public office. While Savannah slaves were not rebellious, they held non-subservient attitudes and constantly exercised rights and privileges that were reserved for whites. Between 1817 and 1829, Savannah’s register listed 157 “free” Blacks who worked in such occupations as housekeepers, nurses, spinsters, gardeners, bakers, farmers and carpenters. Some owned businesses and managed to make large sums of money.
Savannah became the site of the largest slave auction ever in America when Pierce Butler placed about 430 of his slaves on the block for sale in 1859. They were sold for cash in two days. Butler had inherited the slaves and his plantation from his grandfather, a senator who was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. But he was an unsuccessful gambler in the stock market and at the gaming tables and lost huge amounts of money. After liquidating everything he owned and finding himself still in debt, he turned to his human “property.” One good thing that can be said of the sale is that Butler sold his slaves in lots to prevent families from becoming separated.
Visitors can learn more about Savannah’s unique slave history at the Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation, once a thriving rice plantation. From 1749-1865, slaves cultivated rice, cleared swamps and ditched the fields along the coast of Georgia. One exhibit at the Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation notes: “Although the slave trade was outlawed in 1808, as late as 1858 slave ships brought Angolans, Coramantee, Gambians and Eboes from Africa to the Georgia coast...to the feverish rice swamps.” Many slaves died from the grueling work in the rice fields and swamps, but many survived. By 1790 slaves made up 70 percent of Georgia’s population.
The First African Baptist Church of Savannah is another repository of slave history. Located on the historic Franklin Square, this church is the first brick building owned by Blacks in the state of Georgia. The church’s archives contain various documentations, charters, letters and a silver and pewter collection used in church ceremonies since its founding. An enormous pipe organ, the oldest in Georgia, towers over the congregation from the church’s balcony. Pews date back to the construction of the church. The sides of the pews are engraved with a variety of markings made by Gullah people as a way of denoting their families and tribal affiliations from Africa. In the lower chapel, diamond-shaped patterns bored into the wood were actually air holes leading to hidden chambers that anchored 14 tunnels built when the First African Baptist Church served as an Underground Railroad stop for runaway slaves. Slaves hid in the chambers beneath the church. The hidden entrances to some of the tunnels remain intact to this day.
The Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum is another landmark along Savannah’s Black heritage trail. Named for Ralph Mark Gilbert, the father of the local civil rights movement and pastor of the First African Baptist Church from 1939 until his death in 1956, the museum houses Savannah’s civil rights documentation and exhibits from 1950s and 1960s. One of the museum’s life-like exhibits depicts the first sit-ins, which occurred on March 16, 1960, when members of the NAACP Youth Council sat at lunch counters throughout Savannah to protest the practice of refusing to serve African-Americans. In addition to such life-like exhibits, the museum features a theater where visitors can watch a video documenting mass-meetings, voter registration drives, boycotts, sit-ins, kneel-ins (integration of the churches) and wade-ins (integration of the public beaches) by African-Americans in their struggle to achieve legal and social equality.
Another must-see is the King-Tisdell Cottage, a Black heritage museum named for its African-American owners, Eugene and Sarah King and Robert Tisdell and which stands in the last predominantly Black neighborhood in Savannah’s Historic District. Here you will find craftwork, utensils and other items, as well as documents that portray the lives of Low Country Blacks of the 19th century. One of the most enchanting pieces in the cottage is a beautiful quilt that was stitched in the antebellum days. The quilt is covered with folk art and colorful embroidery that is said to have been a secret map for slaves on the Underground Railroad.
Don’t leave Savannah without stopping at the Laurel Grove Cemetery, which was established in 1853 when four acres were set aside for African-American burials. In 1857, an additional 11 acres were reserved and in 1859 the city council increased the size of Laurel Grove South to 30 acres and a caretaker’s house was built. An earlier cemetery, labeled “Negro Burial Ground” on the map of 1818 and situated well beyond the southern edge of the city, reflected the African tradition of placing objects on the graves of the deceased that they had used during their lifetime. Today, the Laurel Grove South Cemetery, with its vaults and tombstones in the European manner, reflects the waning of traditional African burial customs, though some of it can still be observed. Many slaves are buried in Laurel Grove Cemetery and some bodies from the early Negro Burial Ground have been reburied here.
To make your culture heritage visit complete, plan to stay at 1002 Drayton Street in the city’s historic district. Here you will find a vacation rental property that is an excellent alternative to a bed and breakfast, hotel or even an extended-stay suite. Located within walking distance to most of Savannah’s tourist sites, the property is only a minute’s walk to the nearest trolley stop and the popular 11-Ten Restaurant. Amenities include flat screen cable TV, wireless Internet service, washer/dryer, dishwasher and off-street parking. Erected in 1889, the building has apartments on the upper and lower floors that overlook Forsyth Park. With opulent interior design, the units comprise a living room, two large bedrooms, two full bathrooms and a kitchen that leads to a Zen Garden where you can enjoy an outdoor barbeque or a glass of wine. During your stay there, consider indulging in an invigorating massage offered by the property, or have a personal chef come in to prepare your meals so that you can relax and enjoy the richness of Savannah!