I have rubbings from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in D.C. Names of classmates lost in that war.
I have made rubbings of names etched into the 9/11 Memorial in New York City.
Nov. 17, in downtown Savannah, I was moved to see hundreds of people run their fingers over a wall of first names routed into clean pine boards. Familiar names, Biblical names, African names, names from antiquity and Shakespeare. The occasion was the public unveiling of the new interpretive exhibits at the Owens-Thomas House & Slave Quarters.
The story behind those names, one on each board, is powerful. They are the names of enslaved people associated with the Owens-Thomas House. Each name is a life, a life of toil and bondage, a powerless person not so valued in the early 19th century.
Some are the names of people sold and shipped by slave-trader Richard Richardson, the home’s original owner. The names come from shipping manifests. Like other cargo on those vessels, they did not choose their price or their destination.
Some are names of the almost 400 enslaved people who worked on the plantations of a later owner, George Owens, mayor of Savannah.
Some of the wooden planks are blank, nameless, representing those enslaved people whose names Owens-Thomas House researchers have yet to recover. People numbered, but not yet known.
Enslaved people built the home 200 years ago. They would have provided the labor and craftsmanship had such a wall been constructed then. Unlike today’s workers, they would not have been paid and would have been jailed and punished had they tried to escape.
The wall of names is only part of the free Orientation Gallery, the original carriage house. There is an interactive touchscreen map of historic Savannah, timeline graphics putting the house history in a national context, and a documentary on the Marquis de Lafayette. The hero of the American Revolution stayed at the house and spoke from its balcony in 1825.
I did not know Lafayette was such an abolitionist and that he worked with unwavering energy to end slavery in the U.S., France, and around the world. I did not know he had sought to engage his friend and fellow general George Washington in purchasing plantations to experiment with paying and freeing slaves.
Attached to the carriage house are the best-preserved urban slave quarters in the South. The haint blue ceilings are the largest expanse known to exist in America. The old formula of buttermilk, indigo, and lime was mixed and applied by the slaves who lived within.
From the slave quarters, tour guides lead visitors to and through the main house, the elegant mansion where the owners lived. They explain how the home’s butler Peter, nanny Emma, and cook Diane lived and slept in their work spaces.
The guides examine original correspondence and journals that illustrate the complex relationship between the owners and house slaves, familial yet commercial. The nanny Emma nursed the children who would grow up to own her, who could “sell her away,” separate her from her own children, jail her in “protective custody” while they traveled.
You travel back in time as you explore the working cellar, where all the labor that sustained the house was done. Where the linens were cleaned over hot steaming tubs. Where the meals for visitors and family were prepared. Where the ice was chipped for cool drinks for white folks upstairs.
The pantry, the stone biscuit table, the video recreations of cooks cutting okra are tied to the Gullah-Geechee foodways of today. The Nov. 17 program included an open-air buffet prepared by the cooks of EmployAbility. Savory gumbo, mashed potatoes with collards, sweet potato medallions, roasted chicken, cornbread.
The freedom songs performed by the Saltwata Players conveyed the Gullah-Geechee spirituality that is linked to slavery and bondage. Singer Pat Gunn talked about how the national media that contacted her after the Emanuel Nine shootings in Charleston, S.C., could not grasp how the victims’ families could, within 24 hours, forgive the killer.
“Our people have a forgiving heart. We don’t carry pain very well. We give that pain to God. Through truth and reconciliation can come healing.”
Storyteller J’Miah Nabawi honored his enslaved ancestors by telling trickster folk tales that people of West Africa are still familiar with. He sang recreational songs in the Ashante language that his ancestors spoke and which their spirits would understand.
Literacy was illegal for the enslaved people linked to the Owens-Thomas House. Likely most could not spell their own names. But on clean pine boards, they are written now.
Ben Goggins, a retired marine biologist, lives on Tybee Island. He can be reached at 912-786-6181 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you go
What: Owens-Thomas House & Slave Quarters
Where: 124 Abercorn St.
When: Hours vary daily; closed Jan. 28-Feb. 1
Cost: Prices vary; children 12 and younger free with adult admission
Free admission days
When: Noon-4 p.m. Sundays through May 26
Cost: Free for Chatham County residents with proof of residency. Tours subject to availability. Not valid for groups.