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Countdown to Savannah: African Americans and Savannah - A Troubled Past, A Hopeful Future

Written by AppalAnnie

In early 2007, we started our official Countdown to Savannah. Each Sunday, we posted a different topic about this special city where we met for our first Great Slow Travel Gathering in Spring 2008.

With 63 posts over 14+ months, we learned a lot about the many facets of this historic, hospitable and intriguing American city. Our weekly posts touched on Savannah's history, famous people, architecture, food, culture, surrounding area and much more. We hope this information acquaints you with Savannah, entices you to visit this historic city, and prepares you for a very memorable trip.

Georgia, Cotton, and the Slave Trade

The early story of African Americans in Savannah is directly tied to the history of slavery in Georgia, as well as in the U.S. in general. When Georgia was founded in the early 1730’s as the last of England’s 13 colonies, its Trustees had the experience of neighboring colonies before them. To avoid the slave-based plantation economy that had developed there, the Georgia Trustees outlawed slavery in January 1735.

Alas, economic forces proved more powerful than good intentions, and by the late 1740’s, slaves from South Carolina were openly sold in Savannah. Georgia settlers petitioned the Trustees to legalize slavery, and this effort succeeded. At the beginning of 1751, the practice became legal in Georgia. By the time of the American Revolution, African slaves comprised nearly half of Georgia’s population.

Although Savannah initially had minimal involvement with the slave trade, the repeal of the ban on slavery changed this situation markedly, mainly because the city’s coastal location made it an ideal port of seagoing vessels. At first, Savannah merchants obtained slaves through trade with South Carolina and the Caribbean. After legalization, slaves were mostly imported directly from West Africa.

During most of the 1700’s, rice was the major crop of Georgia’s plantation economy. By the end of the century, though, planters began to cultivate cotton, at first mostly for domestic purposes. The invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney in 1793 on a Savannah River plantation, led to a significant increase in cotton production and trans-Atlantic commerce and thus to a comparable growth in the slave trade. Cotton remained the principal export from Savannah until the Civil War.

The voyage across the ocean from West Africa to Savannah lasted between four and six months. The length of this voyage, along with the confinement of slaves below deck, led to a high rate of infectious diseases among them. To limit the spread of such diseases in Savannah, city officials in 1767 authorized the building of a nine-story quarantine facility (a “lazeretto,” from “pest-house” in Italian) on the western end of Tybee Island. Slaves arriving directly from Africa were quarantined there until a physician could examine them to see if they had infectious diseases. Those that did remained confined to the lazeretto.

Ironically, at the same time that the importation of slaves through Savannah was increasing, the movement to outlaw slavery - or at least the slave trade – was gaining strength. In 1775, the Continental Congress passed a nonimportation agreement that banned all slave trade, including the Atlantic trade to Savannah. After the Revolutionary War, though, the slave trade to the city resumed. In the 1780’s, several northern states voted to outlaw slavery, but Georgia and South Carolina, especially, fought every attempt to limit the practice.

Although the U.S. Constitution did not abolish the slave trade, it did provide for the federal government to end it within twenty years (Article I, Section 9). National legislation for this purpose passed in 1807 and took effect the next year. The Georgia state legislature acted sooner, however, banning the direct importation of Africans in 1798. A significant illegal slave trade, though, continued for many decades thereafter.

The official end of the slave trade did not stop the practice of slavery in Georgia, or elsewhere in the South, of course. This did not occur until the U.S. Civil War and the passing of the 13th Amendment in 1865. I will not elaborate here on the whole sequence of compromises and conflicts that led to these events, as this story is readily available elsewhere.

Life for African Americans in Savannah before, during, and after the Civil War

In 1998, the Beach Institute African-American Center (named after an historic school for black students in the latter part of the 19th century) mounted a significant exhibit, Look Back, Ponder, and Move On, focusing on the African-American experience in Savannah from 1750 to 1900. The exhibit’s curator later established a Website on the exhibit, which not only shows several of the artifacts from the exhibit, but more importantly perhaps, provides expanded background information and personal stories, in the manner of Ken Burns, to illustrate the history of African Americans during this period.

One story focuses on Olaudah Equiano, a man born into tribal nobility in West Africa, who was kidnapped as a boy and placed into slavery by Africans and later Europeans. However, he learned to read and write, gained his freedom, traveled extensively, and published an account of his experiences. An episode describes a visit he made to Savannah in 1767, during which he was taken into custody by local authorities and nearly flogged because of the indiscriminate application of restrictive laws to free black men.

The narrative relates that there were several free people of color in antebellum Savannah. Among them were the Reverend Henry and Elizabeth Cunningham, who built a house at the corner of Houston and State Streets, which is still standing. Rev. Cunningham was the pastor the Second African Baptist Church from 1803 to 1842. Aspasia and Simon Mirault were another Savannah free couple. She ran a bakery and confectionery shop for many years in the mid-1800’s.

Insight into the lives of African Americans during the Civil War can be gained from the story of Susie King Taylor (1848-1912). Born into slavery, at the age of seven she was sent to live with her grandmother in Savannah, where she was freed and secretly taught to read and write. Protected by Union forces on St. Simons Island during the war, she taught school there and later on the mainland. She eventually moved to Boston and published her memoirs (see below) privately in 1902.

The Civil Rights Movement

In the 20th century, the Civil Rights movement in Savannah was guided primarily by local citizens, particularly two outstanding civic leaders – Ralph Mark Gilbert and W. W. Law. Gilbert was the pastor of the First African Baptist Church from 1939 to 1956. He also headed the Savannah branch of the NAACP from 1942 to 1950 and then served as president of the Georgia Conference of the NAACP. Through his efforts and that of others, Savannah in 1947 became one of the first cities in the South to hire black policemen.

W. W. Law, who succeeded Gilbert as president of the Savannah NAACP and who fought with him in the city’s civil rights’ struggle, was largely responsible for the establishment of a museum to commemorate this movement. The museum, named in honor of Gilbert, (The Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum), is housed in a former bank on Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard. Its three floors house historic photographs and interactive exhibits which highlight the events and sites of the movement.

Exploring Savannah’s African-American Heritage

Although many sites significant in the history of African Americans in Savannah are in the Historic District and can be explored independently, tours (African-American Heritage Tours) are available to facilitate this experience. In particular, the Negro Heritage Trail, organized by W. W. Law, includes stops at the First African Baptist Church, the Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum, the Beach Institute, and the King-Tisdell Cottage. A newer tour is the Rev. Andrew C. Marshall Walking Tour. It is named in honor of Marshall, who was born a slave and later became a pastor of the First African Baptist Church and a successful Savannah businessman.


Atlantic Slave Trade to Savannah

Look Back, Ponder, and Move On

Negro Heritage Trail

Our Georgia History: Slavery in Georgia

Slavery in Antebellum Georgia


Taylor, Susie King. Reminiscences of My Life in Camp: An African American Woman’s Civil War Memoir. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2006


All About Savannah: Links to many information pages about Savannah (where to eat, where to stay, places of interest, getting around town, and more)

Author: AppalAnnie is a retired college professor with interests in people, places, and public affairs; history; music of all kinds (with a few exceptions), especially "classic" folk, blues, bluegrass, and jazz; awesome vistas; Appalachian culture (e.g., folktales and music); and Judaica.

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