IF THERE'S anywhere more appropriate to break out your grandmother’s lace gloves on a spring Sunday than Lafayette Square, I’ll eat the matching hat.
With an absence of monuments and the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist presiding above the oaks, this shady spot offers a charm more subdued and perhaps more sacred than some of Savannah’s more raucous public places. There’s also something about ironic about its rare respite in the bustling historic district, inspiring a kind of bittersweet nostalgia for Southern propriety and its bygone accessories.
Vintage attire is definitely de rigueur at the annual Flannery O’Connor Birthday Parade & Street Fair, taking place around and in Lafayette Square on March 26. The quirky community event pays homage to Savannah’s local literary luminary with 1930s-era dress, celebratory activities and a deep appreciation for the Wise Blood author’s darkly humorous take on society and faith, which was cultivated in the modest three-story Greek revival house right across the street.
“Most of Flannery’s childhood took place between these walls, the square and the Cathedral,” says Cody Shelley, the foundation manager of the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home at 215 Charlton. “The birthday, the parade, the whole day connects us to her experiences.”
Those experiences include attending St. Vincent’s School for Girls and famously teaching a chicken to walk backwards in the garden before moving to Milledgeville, where O’Connor raised peacocks and wrote her skewering cultural critiques. Yet the mischievous spirit of that “pigeon-toed child with a receding chin and a you-leave-me-alone-or-I’ll-bite-you complex” lives on with her birthday party every spring.
Conceived in 2012 by then-Home board president Christine Sajecki and community rabble-rouser Andrew Hartzell, the first parade consisted of a bunch of folks shaking tambourines and carrying signs with O’Connor quotes. The eccentric procession became an officially-sanctioned Flannery celebration in 2013, a clarion call to the city’s artists, readers, writers and weirdos ever since.
Hartzell always kicks things off with a drum roll, a signal to the Sweet Thunder Strolling Band—made of up of a revolving cast of local musicians—to come to some kind of reasonable order. A popular fixture at many a community gathering past and present, the band was conceived at the behest of and tribute to another Savannah legend.
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“Ben Tucker and I were talking one day about how there wasn’t a funky marching band in Savannah, and he told me to start one,” recalls Hartzell wistfully of the internationally-heralded jazz musician who was killed in a car accident oon after the Sweet Thunder Strolling Band debut in 2013. “Sweet Thunder is the name of his last album.”
Echoing Tucker’s tragedy and O’Connor’s penchant for emotional paradox, the band strikes a befitting chord between solemnity and frivolity, mixing up sing-a-long standards and classic hymnals as parade watchers become part of the spectacle.
Speaking of spectacles, characters from O’Connor’s books can usually be found among the costumes of cat-eyed glasses and tailored shirtwaists. Disgruntled gorillas and humble priests make appearances with nods to Wise Blood, and there’s usually some good country person carrying around a prosthetic leg.
Bumperstickers for sale in the Home quote, “All Writers Are Local Somewhere,” and the day’s literary love extends to the local writing community. Savannah writers will fill out the square as fiercely independent bookshop The Book Lady sponsors Local Authors Day, showcasing Jane Fishman, Rosemary Daniell, Bess Chapas, Tina Whittle, poets Danelle LaJeune and Tony Morris and many more.
“This will be the fifth year will be joining the festivities,” says Book Lady proprietor Joni Saxon-Giusti, who will oversee book sales. “Over forty local authors and publishers will be in the square to share their work with the public. It’s a great opportunity for our community to see what great talent resides right here in our creative city.”
Flannery’s birthday is a family-friendly affair, and scampering around the peacock tail bandshell is always a hit with the kidlets, as is the storied tradition of chickenpoop bingo, which is exactly what it sounds like.
If the horns play too loud or the weather is too beautiful to handle, the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home will be open all afternoon, admission fees waived in honor of the honoree. Shelley will be on hand to sign up new members and show off some of the Home’s new acquisitions, including a graduation photo of O’Connor cousin and patron Katie Semmes as well as a remarkably odd Victorian-era portrait above the mantle.
The afternoon concludes with a sheetcake adorned with peacock-blue frosting, daintily eaten by the Flannery faithful turned out in white gloves and pillbox hats.
Those costumes would have been normal churchwear in the author’s time, a funky marching band next to the Cathedral considered sacrilege back then. Yet Lafayette Square still holds a timeless quality that allows literarily-minded later generations to relate.
“We can connect to Flannery just by being here,” promises Shelley.
“She probably would have spent a spring Sunday afternoon playing in the square, just like us.”