THE OPULENT rooms of the Owens-Thomas House have offered a historic glimpse into the 19th-century life of some of Savannah’s wealthiest families since it was bequeathed to the Telfair Museum of Art in 1951, the braided tassels and rich mahogany furniture giving rich context to the times.
In the 1990s, however, tours of the popular house museum began to include not only the background of the Owenses and Thomases but folks named Emma, Peter and others who lived in the slave quarters at the back of the property during the 1820s and 1830s.
Museum curators worked diligently to reinterpret artifacts and architecture to include the African slaves who interacted daily with the residents and performed the upkeep of the manse, contributing much to the home’s history.
“There has been an evolution in the way we present the life of enslaved people at this site, starting with not referring to them as nameless ‘servants,’” says Telfair Museums Curator of History and Decorative Arts Shannon Browning-Mullis of her predecessors’ efforts to shift and expand the historical narrative. “It’s our job to bring humanity to their stories.”
Broadening the narrative of American history to include more African American stories is the aim of Lift Every Voice, a year-long celebration of the inauguration of The Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC.
As part of the global initiative, the Owens-Thomas House has partnered with seven of Savannah’s historically significant organizations to offer a day of free admission this Sunday, August 20.
“Savannah has begun to make strides in presenting a more inclusive and nuanced history,” notes Browning-Mullis, who organized the collaborative event.
The curator keeps a copy of the seminal book Slavery and Freedom in Savannah on her desk as a constant reminder of the mission to continue exploring and expanding the Owens-Thomas House’s African American historical ties. Visitors learn about life in the slave quarters, one of the best preserved examples in the country with its original haint blue paint, and gain appreciation for the invisible efforts that took place in the exquisitely restored butler’s pantry off the grand dining room in the main house.
The Owens-Thomas House recently announced it is one of only 12 museums in the country to receive funding from the National Endowment of the Humanities this year, garnering a $250K grant that it will use to further enrich its presentation of antebellum Savannah and early African-American experience.
A massive project is currently underway to create new education galleries and interactive installations in the slave quarters as well as perform key preservation updates that include rerouting the HVAC through the original fireplace flues.
- Courtesy of city of Savannah Research Library & Municipal Archives
- Red Cross nurses packing supply bags circa 1940s
“This ensures that the house is conserved properly and allows us to present the relationships between the residents and enslaved people in all their honest complexity,” says Browning-Mullis.
The complex, multiple layers of Savannah history can be explored as never before during Sunday’s simultaneous events. While the Owens-Thomas House and the Davenport House focus on the local enslaved people of the early 19th century, other participants in the Lift Every Voice event present different aspects of the African American experience in Savannah.
The Georgia State Railroad Museum has designed a special tour to highlight African Americans’ vital contribution to the Central of Georgia Railroad, and the Georgia Historical Society has put together a unique display of archived materials.
Outdoorsy folks can visit the coastal marshes of Ossabaw Island to learn about the people who built the North End plantation, and the Pin Point Heritage Museum will offer its tours led by descendants of the Gullah-Geechee freedmen who founded this still vibrant community. (Note: The Ossabaw Island tour is already at capacity.)
A treasure trove of fascinating items will be on display at the Beach Institute, which has partnered with the City of Savannah’s Research Library & Municipal Archives to showcase materials in the Institute’s spacious gallery.
Highlights include an original copy of the Boston-based abolitionist newspaper The Liberator and an 1868 issue of Harper’s Weekly that mentions Savannah’s newest Freedman school. Well-preserved newspaper clippings chronicle milestones such as the integration of the police department in 1947.
Old birth registries, voter lists and other public records verify African American citizenry in Savannah going back hundreds of years, and the City’s involvement in the darker side of history is documented in the Municipal Slavery Project.
The exhibit is a rare glimpse of the materials outside of the archives, but all of them are available for perusal after they return.
“These records are public, and they belong to the City of Savannah,” explains Luciana Spracher, director of the Research Library and Archives on the first floor of City Hall.
“We want people to know that they can come and do research and have the firsthand experience with archival materials.”
Many of the items in the City’s exhibit at the Beach Institute have been curated from the vast collection of photos, art, legal documents and other artifacts from the collection of Civil Rights leader and historian W.W. Law, now owned by the City.
Law also amassed thousands of significant images and pieces of correspondence, including a personal letter from poet Langston Hughes inviting Law to visit him in Harlem.
Sunday’s visitors will also experience the Institute’s current exhibit, “Law & Music,” a kid-friendly, interactive installation that uses the community icon’s records and cassettes to showcase the connections between science, math and song.
“It’s all meant to speak to multiple generations,” says Spracher.
Some historians and curators see the local and national Lift Every Voice events as a way to thread previously separate schools of study into a more complete context.
“What I tell people is that it’s all American history, but what so many people know is American mythology,” explains Jamal Touré, a historical interpreter whose lively presentations can be seen at the Davenport House and through his tour company Day Clean Journeys.
“We can only know history when we know something of everyone’s stories. We’re trying to put the pieces together.”
As we piece together Savannah’s stories from slavery through Civil Rights to the present, we also connect with the larger uniting narrative of which Savannah plays a vital part, Touré explains. He notes that “Lift Every Voice” comes from the anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” composed in 1900 by author, attorney and diplomat James Weldon Johnson, who was born in Jacksonville and rose to become a dynamic force in the Harlem Renaissance.
In his funereal poem “Go Down, Death,” Johnson not only mentions our city, but one of its most storied African American neighborhood:
And God said: Go down, Death, go down
Go down to Savannah, Georgia
Down in Yamacraw,
And find Sister Caroline.
She’s borne the burden and heat of the day,
She’s labored long in my vineyard,
And she’s tired—
Go, Death, and bring her to me.
“He understood the importance of this community to history,” reflects Touré.
“We have individual facilities here that need to be supported and valued, absolutely. But no matter where you are in Savannah, African American history is all around you.”
Browning-Mullis agrees, and though she organized Sunday’s collaboration of some of the city’s most diverse explorations of its African American story, she hopes the need for it will wane.
“For me, I want this event to become obsolete,” she vows.
“I want African American history to be fully integrated into Savannah’s story every single day.”