On the afternoon of Nov. 17, Telfair Museums will unveil its decades-long project of preservation and research on the Owens-Thomas House's working cellar, carriage house, and slave quarters. The newly christened Owens-Thomas House & Slave Quarters will present to the public a number of new exhibits and narratives about the enslaved people who lived and worked there during this free community opening day.
As Telfair's curator of history and decorative arts Shannon Browning-Mullis explains, the expansion of the narrative of the Owens-Thomas House to include the stories of the enslaved people who also called the house their home parallels a much larger national trend.
“We've probably gone through the same evolution as most other historic sites,” says Browning-Mullis. “Which is, first you acknowledge that there were enslaved people here, and then you start to incorporate their stories ... Half the people here at any given time were enslaved people.”
The opening of the newly reinterpreted sections of the house is part of Telfair's larger “Slavery and Freedom in Savannah” project, which includes an extensively researched book of the same name. The new exhibits include the reinterpretation of the slave quarters themselves (previously used as a visitors waiting area) and features what's being called the “largest example of haint blue painting known to exist in America.” Haint blue is made with indigo and has significant spiritual properties for many African cultures.
The exhibits also feature a number of period objects, including some that can be touched, as well as various interactive screens, digital projections, a discovery table, and a documentary about the preservation project itself, along with a few other surprises.
The expansion of the narrative of this high-profile historic location is an exceedingly important addition to our collective understanding of America's past, even though it was a long time coming.
“Several people have asked me, why now?” says Browning-Mullis. “And I'm not sure why it is all happening now, but my response would be to say, why hasn't it happened until now? This has been the history the whole time.”
Browning-Mullis points to a larger cultural shift, which includes the landmark opening of Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
“I think that as Americans, we are asking who we are and what our identity is,” says Browning-Mullis. “How our history and the history we choose to subscribe to and celebrate makes us who we are. And do we all have the same history and do we all have the same identity? I think that's at the core of the questions we're asking now, but that's a little bit bigger than what we talk about at the Owens-Thomas House.”
Browning-Mullis explains that the history that's being told at the Owens-Thomas House & Slave Quarters is situated in a very specific time and place, namely Savannah in the first half of the 19th century. The goal is to provide audiences “with a broader understanding of how slavery impacted urban life in and beyond the home, and how it affected young and old, black and white, enslaved and free.”
While the new exhibits are open to one and all, the hope is that locals will come out and show their support this Saturday.
“A lot of people who visit us are wonderful tourists, which is great,” says Browning-Mullis. “But for this day, we would really like to have our community come out and engage with these stories, because at the end of the day, we're telling stories of Savannah and of our ancestors and who these people are.”
IF YOU GO
What: Owens-Thomas House & Slave Quarters Community Day
When: 1-4 p.m. Nov. 17
Where: Owens-Thomas House & Slave Quarters, 124 Abercorn St.
Cost: Free, all ages