Finally got the news? – Savannah, Georgia – Special Supplement: Georgia’s African American Heritage
Not long ago, when I introduced Savannah to an acquaintance who had spent some years living in France, she insisted that the city was as lovely as Paris. Le Monde, France’s world-famous newspaper, is not so bold, merely calling it “the most beautiful city in North America.”
Savannah’s beauty is not only renowned; it is defining. The town is a profusion of green squares graced by monuments and fountains. it is moss-draped oak trees overlooking streets, daily witness to the rival demands for attention between gorgeous Colonial houses and banks of azaleas and camellias and rows of blooming dogwood. It is more than 2,300 architecturally and historically significant buildings, all located within the 2 1/2-square-mile Historic District that can be viewed from horse-drawn carriages. It is also the “Factors Walk,” a nine-block Riverfront Plaza that stretches along the Savannah River, where old cotton warehouses with walls of oyster shell and narrow passageways and cobblestone streets recall the city’s Colonial founding.
While the Historic District, the Colonial houses, the squares, the oaks, dogwood, magnolias and azaleas gently lull one into serenity, the riverfront quickens the senses, for here are found scores of outdoor cafes and restaurants, taverns, studios, shops, museums and opportunities to board sightseeing riverboats.
Savannah’s visual appeal alone is compelling justification for anyone’s visit – but the unknown story about the city is that Savannah is as richly laden with the history of the African-American experience as it is with beauty. And in more than one instance, the two dovetail.
A walk around Greene Square and Washington Square in Savannah’s Historic District reveals this dovetailing in all its glory. Greene Square introduces the visitor to the Second African Baptist Church, and thus to Savannah’s monumental role both as the home of America’s first autonomous black church and as the host city of pastors who went on to become the earliest African-American missionaries to the West Indies and Africa. Second African dates back to December 26, 1802, and still stands on its original site, calmly gazing down on Greene Square as if to settle the competing claims of beauty and history, the sacred and the profane.
The church’s historical importance is not restricted to the early Federal period, nor simply to matters ecclesiastical and local. In the closing months of the Civil War, Second African was the site of the meeting between leaders of coastal Georgia’s black community and General William Tecumseh Sherman and Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton. At the Second African Baptist meeting, Sherman read out his historic Field Order 15, setting aside Georgia’s Sea Islands and abandoned rice fields 30 miles inland for newly freed slaves, to whom he promised 40 acres and a mule.
In the square opposite the church is a historical marker outlining some of this history; another historical marker fronts the church, whose original foundation is still visible – mute testimony to centuries of black initiative.
Bordering Greene Square is President Street, which retains the largest number of free black houses from the Colonial and Federal periods. (All these houses, whether then owned by wealthy rice planters or by free black merchants and craftsmen, are clapboard, which was the norm until the 1820s and ’30s and the rise of cotton production and conspicuous mansions. All, too, are today private homes and offer exterior viewing only.) Look for the 1810 Cunningham House, once the home of a Second African pastor, and the 1818 Wall House.
Nearby is Washington Square, another noted free black neighborhood. Look particularly for the old home of Jane DeVeaux on St. Julien. The daughter of a Second African pastor, DeVeaux returned to Savannah from a Northern education in 1847 and conducted a secret school for blacks until Shennan’s forces entered the city almost two decades later. During these years, she regularly hid her charges in the attic when white civic patrols entered her home (as they did the home of any free black) in search of runaways or students.
But more than just old, attractive homes set around eye-catching squares tell the tale of Savannah’s black past. Visitors will surely want to stop by the King-Tisdell Cottage, in the 1890s a middle-class African-American residence and today the city’s black heritage museum. Outstanding artifacts on view include slave bills of sale from the late 1700s onward, newspapers from the 1830s and ’40s, woven baskets from the Gullah culture established on the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina, photographs of former slave quarters on St. Catherines Island, and the Arabic-language meditations of Ben-Ali, a black Sapelo Island gave driver.
Near to King-Tisdell is the each Institute, where visitors will find a range of works by local black artists. The highlight here is the Ulysses Davis collection, which covers 67 years of the sculptor’s work, from his earliest surviving carving, executed when he was 10, to the creation he completed just before his death.
The truest measure of Savannah’s black past will be found in and around the city’s Yamacraw district, first in the two churches that testify to the creation of an autonomous African-American voice and second in the old graveyard in which are buried the founding fathers of the Colonial community that gave rise to that voice.
George Liele was an American giant. Born in slavery in Virginia and taken South by his owner, Liele was consumed by the good news he heard in a white Baptist church in Georgia. Convicted of sin and reborn in Christ, he began preaching to whites and blacks on both sides of the Savannah River. Freed to preach and ordained in 1775, Liele in 1777 formally organized lack congregation that dated back to his prelicensed preaching of 1773. The First African Baptist Church thus claims to be the oldest continuously active, autonomously developed black church in America.
During the Revolution, Liele sided with the British (who promised freedom to slaves who fled their rebellious masters), and he left Savannah with the evacuating British forces in 1782. Arriving in Jamaica, Liele converted 400 souls and began an organized mission to Africa.
His departure from Savannah scarcely slowed the tide of black Baptism. Early in 1788, Andrew Bryan, who had earlier been converted by Liele, was ordained and became pastor of First African, whose original house of worship was raised in 1794 on a plot of land in Yamacraw.
Today, First African Baptist Church is located not far from its original site and is graced with stained-glass windows depicting Liele, Bryan and others of the church’s earliest leaders; with original windows, lectern and pews (note the African symbols etched in their ends by African-American carvers) that date back to the present building’s 1859 construction; and with church memorabilia and records that date back to its first days. When you visit First African, you should be sure to wander down to the basement and note a series of holes in the basement floor that a ear to reflect an African element of design: Their functional purpose was as air holes for the runaways who hid in the space between the basement floor and the foundation underneath.
The Yamacraw site of the original First African is now occupied by First Bryan Baptist Church. Here the visitor will find a monument to George Liele in front of the church (note the variant spelling of his surname, which is typical of America’s earlier days), a historical marker just across the street in the pocket park, and an 1873 building with stained-glass windows that pay tribute to the founding fathers of the African-American church.
One more site demands attention for the visitor interested in Savannah’s black past, Laurel Grove-South Cemetery. Here, buried in close proximity, are Andrew Bryan and other early black Savannah leaders, such as Andrew Cox Marshall, who lived to be 100 and died while traveling up North on church business (note the marvelous rhetorical cadence on his gravestone), and Henry Cunningham. Buried nearby are the various leaders of the black Masonic movement and of Savannah’s black militia, a late-19th-century victim of the imposition of Jim Crow; the mother and stepfather of Robert S. Abbott, the Georgia-born founder of the Chicago Defender; and the leading free black families of the antebelleum city.
These remnants of Savannah’s heritage of African-American endeavor are not merely enlightening black sites and an opportunity for a rewarding excursion around a lovely city; they are poignant and powerful reminders of the tragedy, the loss to America as a nation, that ensued upon the overturning of Colonial Georgia’s original prohibition against slavery. They more than merit attention; they bring into sharp relief both the reality and the irony of so much loss (and so much achievement) amid such great and enduring beauty. They intensify a complexity of loss, gain and transcendence that is fully human – and truly Savannah.
For an evening spot, try Hanna’s East Bar, upstairs in the Pirate’s House Restaurant. Owned by Ben Tucker, the noted jazz bassist who once graced Billy Taylor’s trio (among other outstanding groups), this establishment offers drinks, ambiance and music (some of which occasionally features Tucker and his 280-year-old bass.
For an old-style, don’t-tell-your-doctor, no-frills, good-food, black-owned eatery, venture into the Historic District and check out Nita’s.
For the future, bear in mind the Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum, which will open in the old Wage Earners Bank, once the largest black bank in the United States. Here will be found Savannah’s story of the struggle against segregation and for equal rights – a struggle that occurred outside the mainstream of the movement and whose successes predated by same years the better-known story of Martin Luther King Jr., Alabama and Mississipi.
Stop by St. Phillips Monumental A.M.E., Georgia’s first A.M.E. church and the base for the great Bishop Henry M. Turner, the late 19th century’s leading proponent of emigration to Africa. The church’s archives have photographs of Turner and records of his tenure, along with other memorabilia.
For a great guided tour of Savannah’s black heritage, call (912) 233-2027 and ask Mr. W.W. Law to show you around. His tours are more than comprehensive; they’re more than definitive: You can’t have a better time, nor learn more, anywhere in the country.
Spend some time simply strolling the waterfront and the historic district, mindlessly enjoying the city’s charm and beauty. Remember: it’s a vacation!
For further ideas and details, including information on the many different tours of the city that are available, call the Savannah Convention & Visitors Bureau [(800) 444-2427]. Be sure to ask for the “Historic Savannah’s African-American Heritage” brochure.
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