By Sierra Lawson

If you’re reading this in February, Happy Black History Month! If not, there’s no bad time to celebrate history, and maybe no better place for it than Savannah.

Everywhere you go, you will find a significant contribution of an African American inventor, artist, writer, or political figure who helped shape the world into what it is today. The great city of Savannah has no shortage of such contributions.

Let me take you on a quick trip through history, where we will discover how African-Americans have helped mold this historic city to make it the marvel that you see today.

Sites to See:

Now, if you want to physically stand where many African ancestors once stood, the destinations I’m going to touch on are an absolute must-see. Some you may be familiar with, and some may come as a bit of a shock.

Calhoun and Whitefiled Square

Savannah has some of the most haunted, well preserved, picturesque, and calm cemeteries in the country. Laurel Grove is no different. However, what makes this specific cemetery different is that it is segregated.

There are white, black, Irish, and Jewish sections. Both free and enslaved blacks were transported to Laurel Grove when the Old Negro Cemetery reached capacity.

Where is the Old Negro Cemetery located, you may ask?

Take a stroll over to Calhoun and Whitfield Square. You won’t see a marker mentioning it or any visible graves, but city archives will show that Calhoun and Whitefield Square/The Old Negro Cemetery was not only located here but was the only place where blacks were legally permitted to be buried between 1763-1851.

Petitions are currently circulating to have the squares renamed to honor those buried there.

Owens-Thomas House

Savannah has no shortage of historically preserved homes that have been converted to museums. However, Owens-Thomas is a must-see when you need a visual reminder of all that we have come from as a country. This home is considered one of the best and wholly preserved examples of Urban Slavery living quarters.

Cave Entrace

The home was built in 1819 with English Regency-inspired architecture. The slave quarters were located in the carriage house and contains furnishings and artifacts common during that period.

The carriage house ceiling is also painted in the shade’ haint blue’, which is a widely utilized deterrent for spirits and ghosts in the Gullah Geechee culture.

First African Baptist Church

This richly historic Church was erected in 1859 and claimed to have been the first black baptist congregation in America which first assembled in 1773.

This Church is also the first building to be constructed by brick and owned by black citizens in Georgia.

This building is held very sacredly in the African-American community for various reasons. For one, this Church was a safe space during both the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, but most namely for runaway slaves.

The floorboards of the Church are covered in holes in the pattern of a BaKongo Cosogram (more on that later).

Cave Entrace

These holes are meant to make it easier to breathe under the floorboards, being as First African Baptist Church was indeed a stop on the Underground Railroad.

Tondees Tavern

Tondee’s Tavern is one of the oldest running and successful Taverns in Savannah. The original building that stood on the corner of Broughton is rumored to be where The Sons of Liberty frequented and also where the Declaration of Independence was read aloud for the first time in Georgia.

The current location’s lesser-known fact is that the upstairs offices were once the headquarters for the largest slave trader on the East Coast, Joseph Bryant, and Sons.

As a result, enslaved people and shanghaied sailors were kept regularly in the basement of the building. Bryant and Sons even had a tunnel connected to Factor’s Walk, which allowed them to expedite kidnapped persons to the River to be sent to sea.

Key Arcticetechual Facts:

Many of the buildings that stand on Savannah soil were built by enslaved people. Some of these buildings were molded in their own hands.

As a result, you may have noticed some strange, uneven, or oddly colored aspects of some of our buildings, or even the very streets you’ve walked on. There is a reason for that:

Tabby Concrete/Oyster Shell aggregate

Walking around downtown Savannah, you may look down and come across a strange type of concrete. An unlikely mix of oyster shells, water, sand, ash, and lime will give you what we call Tabby Concrete or Oyster Shell Aggregate.

Tabby Concrete was a cheap yet durable construction material often crafted by enslaved people.

The origins of the mixture are believed to be from South African Moors after being invaded by the Spanish and eventually migrating to the south. The work to make the concrete is grueling and lengthy but was a popular resource during colonial times.

A very popular example of a tabby concrete structure is the Fort Pulaski over on Tybee Island.

Savannah Grey Brick

This particular brick, the authentic kind, is a famous yet rare type of brick used in Savannah. Grey bricks are considered The Bricks that Built Savannah.

What makes them so unique is that the brick was produced locally at the Hermitage Plantation by enslaved people. If you take a close look at some of the bricks, you can see the fingerprints of those who molded them with their bare hands.

They are also called grey bricks because the local marshland clay used to make them has a grey hue. Production of the bricks stopped shortly after the end of the Civil War, yet many buildings in Savannah are still standing strong and tall with these special bricks.

Those buildings include but are not limited to: The Harper Fowlkes house, The First African Baptist Church, and parts of the Georgia State Railroad Museum.

Ballast Stones

When you’re walking on River Street, the massive amounts of cobblestone on the ground is hard to miss.

But make no mistake, not every stone on the ground is cobblestone. Ballast Stones are a common stone that can be found by River Street for a fascinating reason.

Cave Entrace

The purpose of the ballast stones is that when empty ships would get ready to set out to sea, they would be significantly underweight. To ensure the vessel wouldn’t topple over, sailors would bring ballast stones on board to keep them steady before loading on enslaved persons.

When slave ships would finally come dock at the port, they would either dump ballast stones directly into the ocean or scatter them by the thousands onto the streets when they no longer had use for them.

Those ballast stones were then used up and down River Street before most of it was covered up with smoother concrete or brick.

Today, the ballast stone street serves as a reminder of Savannah’s past, preserved like an open-air museum.

Key Facts: Where did Slaves/Free Blacks Live?

Between Bay Street and all the way to the outer skirts of Forsyth is where Savannah’s Elite resided, and this is where the largest population of slaveowners lived during the early-mid 19th century.

If Urban enslaved people were not required to live with their enslavers, they were permitted to live amongst free blacks, fellow enslaved people, and Irish/German immigrants in the community of Yamacraw Villiage.

Key Facts: What is Urban Slavery?

When people think of slavery, they tend to associate it with rural life on plantations with the excruciating agricultural work that tends to go with it. However, Rural Slavery and Urban Slavery are a bit different.

Savannah had a massive population of Urban Slaves, meaning that enslaved people would sometimes live and work in the city with or separate from those who enslaved them.

Urban Slaves were permitted to work, trade, and socialize within the city while being forced to work in professions such as timber cutting, blacksmithing, mining, valet driving, cooking, etc.

Key Facts: BaKongo Cosmogram

This is a prominent symbol in Congo culture which is a cross within a diamond

It signifies life in its four moments of the sun;

Dawn (Kala) = new life.

Noon (Tukula) = life at its peak.

Sunset (Luvemba) = the end of your journey.

Second Dawn (Musoni)= born again.

Cave Entrace

I hope that you’ve learned something new during your time here and that you will take the journey yourself to one of these awe-inspiring sites in the grand city of Savannah. As you know, when you walk here, you walk on hallowed ground.

We’re not afraid of the dead, or the past, here. We welcome it with open arms. Raise a glass to the many souls who are gone but not forgotten. How could they be? They are in every step we take on ballast stone, savannah grey brick, or tabby concrete. May they rest in the mightiest of peace.