Savannah: History’s Revelations and Reversals

When I was a teenager, history classes touted states’ rights more than slavery as the cause of the Civil War, and the romance of “Gone with the Wind” further colored my perception of Dixie’s fall. When I visited my grandmother in the South, I was enraged by the destruction wreaked by General Sherman and enchanted by plantations and Spanish moss, eerie and elegant as lacy shrouds, trailing from massive live oaks.

In April, when Dave and I arrived in Savannah after the two-hour drive from Charleston, again I was smitten. The sun and warmth had returned, and a profusion of pink azaleas bloomed in squares and parks. Stately homes with ornamental wrought iron railings were as vibrant and proud as their nineteenth century owners, and to Dave’s chagrin, I had a lengthy list of those homes I wished to tour.

Mercer-Williams House

And tour we did, hopping on and off Old Town Savannah trolleys, intrigued as Arthur-of-the booming-voice pointed out the majestic Mercer Williams House and told of the murder there of Danny Hansford. We cruised by, and toured, the Green-Meldrim House, spared damage during the war because General Sherman used it as his headquarters. And later, we wandered the grounds of Bonaventure Cemetery, mysteriously lovely with its graceful headstones and mourning statues, serene and sheltered by ancient trees and draperies of moss.

Green-Meldrim House

We ate a lot too. An extraordinary meal of pecan-crusted grouper in the gracious old world mansion of Elizabeth on 37th. Grilled salmon at The Fitzroy. Creamy shrimp and grits and fried grouper fingers for lunch by the river. All so delicious, but it was the fried food, I think, that did Dave in.

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A voluminous bouquet of silver helium balloons preceded the gaggle of chattering girls. An inflatable “2” and “1” conveyed the reason for the celebration: a 21st birthday and the right to legal alcoholic beverages. The girls took selfies, giggled, and ordered drinks. They were young and happy, fresh to the threshold of young adulthood. They were also black, and as I said, female. After the tours we’d been taking, I couldn’t help thinking that less than 200 years ago, they would have been slaves. They would not have been allowed in a restaurant as patrons, nor, for that matter, would I. For, most of that evening, I was alone, and an unescorted woman in such an establishment would have been scandalous.

Bonaventure Cemetery

I’d found the Boar’s Head Grill and Tavern online and made our dinner reservation weeks in advance. As I refreshed my make-up before leaving our room at the inn, however, Dave had started to feel queasy. A nicer wife would have insisted we skip dinner, but I loved the website’s images of worn brick walls, wooden beams, and nautical décor: I wanted to go. “Maybe we’ll just have appetizers and a drink?” I offered.

My husband is a good sport and a master of mind over matter; usually he can will away physical discomforts. But not that night.

When we arrived at the Boar’s Head, it was as wonderful as its pictures, but Dave felt even worse. He thought a seltzer would ease his stomach, but the scent of food, good as it was, drove him out the door. “I need to get some air,” he said. “I’ll feel better after a walk.”

I was alone when our server, Sharon, came to greet me. I explained the situation, ordered Dave’s seltzer, and told Sharon I wasn’t sure when he’d be back. She assured me I was welcome regardless and suggested a light, ginger-based cocktail. Shortly, she returned with my drink – which really was tasty – and told me she’d stepped outside hoping to give Dave his seltzer, but he wasn’t in sight.

That was only the first of her kindnesses, for she stopped by the table often to see if I liked my drink, bring me a basket of warm bread, and to chat between stops at her other tables. We talked about her upcoming move, tales of hauntings, and the history of the Boar’s Head, originally an 1800’s cotton warehouse on the river front… just down the way from the dock where the ships of the Transatlantic slave trade unloaded their human cargo.

Earlier that day, Dave and I had been transported to the 1800’s through a “Slaves in the City” tour along with my friend Edie, her husband Dave, and their son, Carson. We met with ten others at the African American monument, not far from the Boar’s Head.

Cluskey Embankment Stores

Wearing flowing garments and a green turban, our guide, Sister Patt Gunn, greeted us, her face alight with welcome. Formerly a lawyer for the ACLU, she was a force for the power of truth, stories, and human dignity. As we followed her over the cobblestone streets, she planted her vibrantly colored rain stick for emphasis and rhythm and spoke of the need to acknowledge the role of slavery in the past to further healing and reconciliation in the present.

Sister Patt Gunn speaking in Cluskey Embankment Store during “Slaves in the City” tour.

It was her 64th birthday, and she was in a celebratory mood, for the years she’d lived as well as for the culmination of a successful campaign to mark 22 locations significant to the city’s history of slavery. “There are statues of white men all over Savannah,” she said. “Over half the population was enslaved back then, and over half the population now is black. Like John Lewis used to say, I got into some good trouble… and we’re gonna get those markers.”

Leaving behind the cheerful bustle of souvenir and candy shops, Sister Patt led us up a sloping brick-paved road to the Cluskey Embankment Stores: cavernous, crumbling vaults dating to the 1840’s. She invited us to enter one of the dank enclosures where moss and feathery green ferns grew bright from chinks in walls streaked with seeping water.

“Take a good look at the bricks,” she directed us. “What do you see?”

Bricks etched with tribal symbols

After learning of the fingerprints on the bricks in Charleston, that’s what I expected as I leaned in close. But some of these bricks had been deliberately chipped and scratched. “Ashanti and Adinkra tribal symbols,” said Sister Patt. “When the slave ships arrived, there were sometimes days to wait before the auctions. What to do with the traumatized Africans who’d survived the journey? They kept them here. Sick and terrified though they were, they left these signs. I’ve had folks come on my tours, stand within these walls, and wail, “Those are the symbols of my tribe!”

Outside the vaults, she indicated an informational placard and told us to read it. “I can barely stand to look at it myself,” she said, for it stated there was no documentary evidence to support the use of the vaults as holding pens. “And yet we’re finding and submitting new evidence all the time.” And of course, there were those marks, defiant symbols of identity and dignity carved in the bricks on the walls.

From homeland to ship, to holding pen, to auction; from tribal member to slave; from person to property. One’s past – name, position, relationships – stolen as surely as one’s body, as a new life of bondage to privileged whites obliterated what came before.

Wall of Names of the Enslaved – Owens-Thomas House and Slave Quarters

In the 1830’s, George Welshman Owens –politician, planter, lawyer, mayor – enslaved over 400 people who labored in his household and his multiple plantations. When Dave and I began the tour of the Owens-Thomas House and grounds, we entered a room beneath the former slave quarters that was dedicated to those 400. “Minda,” “Gumbler,” “Doll,” “Pryan,” “Lucy,” “Caddy,” “London, “Bob”: the names spanned one wall from floor to ceiling. The bedrooms, laundry, and kitchens where they toiled and slept, exposed to heat and cold, were a stark contrast to the elegant rooms of the Owens family. How could one live in lavish comfort yet consign those who served you to inadequate lodging and malnutrition?

Slave Quarters: Owens -Thomas House and Slave Quarters

While I’ve always felt for the women of the past, those suppressed by enslavement or societal decree, when I started this piece, I was comfortably grateful for my place in 2022, solid in my rights and, along with the birthday girls, welcome at the Boar’s Head. In recent weeks, that sense of solidity has been shaken by the burqa-garbed women of Afghanistan, who, in the fifties, were as free as my mother to choose to wear a knee-length skirt. And Justice Alito’s leaked draft decision overturning Roe v. Wade threatens privacy rights far beyond abortion. And 11 states–Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, West Virginia,Wyoming–have enacted restrictions on reproductive health and rights.

Bedroom, Main House: Owens-Thomas House

Ultimately, Dave returned to our table at the Boar’s Head, restored by a walk and sips of his seltzer. But what of us, the women of this modern world? Will those conservatives enraged that their freedom of choice was assaulted by mask mandates triumph in determining our rights, and in so doing, the trajectory of our lives?

Photos–Lea Sylvestro

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