Tourists and new residents make their way to Savannah for a variety of reasons. For anthropologist and museum consultant Dr. Deborah L. Mack, the lure was somewhat different:
“I moved to Savannah because it’s the closest thing to Dakar on this side of the Atlantic,” she says.
Lest the name Dakar conjure images of a mythological “dark continent,” note that the African city of two million is the capital of the Republic of Senegal and was once known as “the Paris of West Africa.”
Savannah and Dakar do share important similarities. Both are port cities on the Atlantic coast. Both are rich in history, contain strong cultural diversity, and have comparable ecological environments.
“For an anthropologist,” says Mack, “Savannah is a mother lode. The architecture, the food, the air, the weather, the topography of this place is extraordinary. I’m an Africanist, and like I said, this is the closest I can get to it in this country.”
The Chicago native and Northwestern University grad has coordinated a number of influential and sometimes groundbreaking exhibits, including for Cincinnati’s National Underground Railroad Freedom Center and New York’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
She was appointed in 2005 to the Scholarly Advisory Committee for the Smithsonian Institute’s planned National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. To place in context how big a deal that is, consider that other committee and council members include famed educator John Hope Franklin, multimedia entrepreneur Quincy Jones, and media powerhouse Oprah Winfrey.
Since moving to Savannah three years ago, Mack has served as a consultant for projects involving Ossabaw Island, the Beach Institute, and the Owens-Thomas House. Recently, however, her work took her into Mississippi blues territory. There, she lent her skills for historical interpretation to the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center, scheduled to open in 2007.
“In the tradition of B.B. King’s community at the time, the people who were in the neighborhood became his family,” she says. “We understood that there was something that B.B. King came from, and that we were obliged to put it out there.”
Likewise, when examining Savannah’s rich history as promoted by the heritage-tourism industry, Mack saw there was much more to the city’s story than is generally discussed -- possibly because much of it still remains undocumented.
Because studies of slavery and even life among free African Americans during the 1700s and 1800s focus primarily on rural areas, the public knows relatively little about those African-Americans who lived in urban centers like Savannah. Yet their impact is everywhere, from the buildings in which people reside and work to the foods that literally provide Savannah with much of its cultural flavor.
In addition to the common image of African Americans as domestic servants, they worked in carpentry, masonry, ironwork, gardening, blacksmithing, and other occupations that created the city’s physical structures.
A simple example of the unacknowledged African influence on the Historic District was the use of the building material known as “tabby,” a mixture of oyster shells, water, and lime in various constructions. Signs on historical sites, such as downtown’s Owens-Thomas House, acknowledge that tabby was used in the construction of certain buildings but at present neglect to mention that the word and the formula derive from West African cultures.
To help bring greater balance to the story of Savannah’s past as the world knows it, Mack worked with the Telfair Museum of Art to obtain a series of grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities to fund a reinterpretation project for the Owens-Thomas House.
“This reinterpretation will include all the people who lived at this site, the free and enslaved, white and black people. Our hope is to really show all of those who lived here in a three dimensional fashion,” says Tania Sammons, curator of the Owens-Thomas House.
“We really want to bring to life all the people who were here, not just the wealthy white men who lived here but their wives, their children, their slaves, and the free African-Americans who interacted with this house.”
This closer examination of the Owens-Thomas House will provide more information about the character of its neighborhood. The house contains, after all, one of the very few remaining urban slave quarters in the U.S. and receives some 50,000 visitors every year. What we continue to learn about and from it sheds revealing light on the lives of the African-Americans, enslaved and free, that lived in Savannah from 1750 to 1864.
That knowledge in turn increases our understanding about the realities of slavery, black society (in which some blacks themselves owned slaves) and race relations. Beyond its extraordinary historical value, the reinterpretation project could also boost tourism in the city.
As a tourist destination, Georgia is the third most popular state in the South — behind Florida and North Carolina — and the seventh most popular in the country. Within the state of Georgia, Atlanta reigns at the top. Of the millions who visit Savannah, relatively few are African-American.
The added incentive of a more complete history of the city would likely draw more visitors of every background. However, it is especially likely to draw more African-Americans, a group that spends more than $5 billion annually on leisure travel.
“African-Americans are interested in their historical past and they want to see evidence of it,” says Mack. At present, she adds, “it’s not so much what there is. It’s what there is not. It’s what is not said, the great silences that people are suspect of.”
Anyone who doubts that need only consider that a group of well-known African-American women authors -- including Beverly Jenkins, Evelyn Palfrey and Janice Sims -- are touring Savannah this month for an event called “Diva Daze 2006.” Members hope to combine work with pleasure, getting a first-hand look at a city some of them may use as a setting for a future novel while also enjoying a birthday celebration.
“The evidence shows that expanding the interpretation, not only here but in other places, allows more people to better connect with this experience,” says Mack, “to connect with Savannah’s past and feel that they are a part of it — feel that there are parts of it they can relate to.”
The treasure of information yet to be unearthed in the Savannah area is vast enough that Mack feels learning to properly perform such work is something natives of the city can and should become more involved in professionally. She notes that the history and culture here is one that has influenced cultures and trends worldwide, yet its value seems to be rarely recognized by those who actually live it.
“We have to put in the hard work, and the discipline, and the professionalism, and the follow through in order to control our stories,” she says. “And to have the outcome that we want. It means telling the truth! But it means that the benefits come back into the community as well.”
Although the Beach Institute is not currently involved in a reinterpretation project, Mack notes that its current focus on contemporary art shows and other modern cultural events overlooks the facility’s original purpose.
Built in 1867, the Beach Institute was originally designed to educate newly-emancipated slaves and help them make the transition to freedom. It continued to serve as an educational facility until 1970.
It could still, Mack believes, serve a more socially and politically functional purpose than it presently does by identifying community needs and fulfilling them. It could also benefit financially by more aggressively documenting and promoting its history.
As for the Owens-Thomas House, the final phase of its reinterpretation project requires sharing with the public whatever new discoveries are made about it.
“I think that within five years we’ll see a very different kind of interpretation of historic Savannah than one presently sees,” said Mack.
“Because that information is accessible, it will be taught to tour guides in the city. It will be taught to school children. And that expanded approach will really much more realistically show the Savannah of the past, including the domestic, political, commercial, industrial — in all kinds of ways.”
Aberjhani is the award-winning co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance and author of I Made My Boy Out of Poetry.