The newly rechristened Owens-Thomas House & Slave Quarters recently unveiled its decades-long research and reinterpretation project on the lives of the enslaved people who lived at the house in the early 19th century. During a free community day Nov. 17, they showed additional exhibits and expansion of the narrative of one of Savannah's most historic locations.
All this mirrors a nationwide trend of endeavors to seriously grapple with the difficult and complicated story of our collective past.
This trend includes the opening in 2016 of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, D.C., and the opening this year of both the exhibit that examines Sally Hemings' life at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello estate, Charlottesville, Va., and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, Montgomery, Ala., that commemorates the victims of lynchings in the U.S.
Digging for documents
This historic truth-telling is long overdue. Putting aside the question of why it took so long for us to finally get to this point, it's a testament to the perseverance and determination of so many dedicated individuals that our lopsided historic record is at last beginning to be rectified. But nothing about America's “peculiar institution” of slavery is simple. Once the euphemisms are stripped away, there's still a very messy story to contend with.
“I hope people understand that every story is considerably more complicated than they think it is,” says Telfair's Curator of History and Decorative Arts, Shannon Browning-Mullis, who moved to Savannah with the purpose of helping tell the story of the Owens-Thomas House & Slave Quarters.
Compounding the difficulty of telling these stories is the fact that there is very little documentation to draw from when it comes to the lives of specific enslaved individuals. Much of the research comes from shipping manifests, wills, bills of sale, tax records, and the like, but none of them truly tell the personalized stories.
The best documentation of particular personal experience is the slave narratives that were collected through the Federal Writers Project in the 1930s, which was part of the New Deal's Works Progress Administration (later renamed the Work Projects Administration). These documents are problematic for a number of reasons — many were recorded by laymen, not ethnographers or sociologists, for instance — but they at least allow historians a reasonable window on the past in order to reflect individual stories.
Other local efforts
In Savannah, the Historic Savannah Foundation's Davenport House is also making strides to tell these formerly hidden histories in a number of ways. Its annual Harvest Lecture Series is one of the most recent efforts, which included two talks by professional living history interpreter and historical site tour program writer Cheyney McKnight on Nov. 12 and 13.
McKnight's talks touched on the subject of telling the story of slavery from the enslaved point of view and the ways in which African women in 18th and 19th century America used adornments, such as head wraps, rings, and charms, to retain their West African culture.
Other inroads being made here in Savannah in the effort to tell the full story of our past include the recently published book “The Andrew Low House” by Tania June Sammons with Virginia Logan, which broaches the issue of slavery fairly directly. The National Park Service has also been working to better highlight the full spectrum of historical events at locations like Fort Pulaski, which played a significant role in the Underground Railroad.
The Savannah-Chatham County Historic Site and Monument Commission (a board on which I currently serve as vice chair) recently took up the mantle of better representing the tragic episode known as The Weeping Time, the largest documented slave auction on American soil, which took place just two and a quarter miles outside downtown Savannah. This attempt to bring more attention to this important local and national historic event is being done at the behest of the current commission chair Dr. Nicholas Henry, former president of Georgia Southern University.
As it stands, there is but one lonely historic marker posted in a small triangular park on Augusta Avenue in West Savannah that marks the occasion of The Weeping Time. The marker is an important acknowledgement, but due to its location, very few people will ever come across it unless specifically seeking it out. The objective of the HSMC is to try to facilitate a better way to bring more attention to this story, whether through an actual memorial or some other equally significant commemoration. The next HSMC meeting, at 4 p.m. Dec. 6, will involve a discussion and presentation on this topic. The meeting is open to the public and takes place at the Metropolitan Planning Commission, 110 E. State St.
In addition to the new exhibits at the Owens-Thomas House & Slave Quarters, Telfair is also implementing a number of education and engagement tools. Beginning with the 2019-20 school year, all Chatham County Public School eighth-graders will visit the location for free during school-organized field trips. And beginning Dec. 2, if you are a Chatham County resident with ID, admission will be free each Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. through May 26 (tours subject to availability and it's advised to get tickets early in the day).
All of these efforts are incredibly laudable, but they are only a start. We've come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.
Kristopher Monroe is a writer documenting the intersection of art and community. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow on Twitter @savartscene.
IF YOU GO
What: Savannah-Chatham County Historic Site and Monument Commission meeting
When: 4 p.m. Dec. 6
Where: Metropolitan Planning Commission, 110 E. State St.
What: Free admission days
When: Noon-4 p.m. Sundays from Dec. 2-May 26
Where: Owens-Thomas House & Slave Quarters, 124 Abercorn St.
Cost: Free for Chatham County residents with proof of residency. Tours subject to availability.