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Slavery and Freedom in Savannah

Leslie M. Harris

Publication Year: 2014

Slavery and Freedom in Savannah is a richly illustrated, accessibly written book modeled on the very successful Slavery in New York, a volume Leslie M. Harris coedited with Ira Berlin. Here Harris and Daina Ramey Berry have collected a variety of perspectives on slavery, emancipation, and black life in Savannah from the city’s founding to the early twentieth century. Written by leading historians of Savannah, Georgia, and the South, the volume includes a mix of longer thematic essays and shorter sidebars focusing on individual people, events, and places.

The story of slavery in Savannah may seem to be an outlier, given how strongly most people associate slavery with rural plantations. But as Harris, Berry, and the other contributors point out, urban slavery was instrumental to the slave-based economy of North America. Ports like Savannah served as both an entry point for slaves and as a point of departure for goods produced by slave labor in the hinterlands. Moreover, Savannah’s connection to slavery was not simply abstract. The system of slavery as experienced by African Americans and enforced by whites influenced the very shape of the city, including the building of its infrastructure, the legal system created to support it, and the economic life of the city and its rural surroundings. Slavery and Freedom in Savannah restores the urban African American population and the urban context of slavery, Civil War, and emancipation to its rightful place, and it deepens our understanding of the economic, social, and political fabric of the U.S. South.

This project is made possible by a grant from the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services. This volume is published in cooperation with Savannah’s Telfair Museum and draws upon its expertise and collections, including Telfair’s Owens-Thomas House. As part of their ongoing efforts to document the lives and labors of the African Americans—enslaved and free—who built and worked at the house, this volume also explores the Owens, Thomas, and Telfair families and the ways in which their ownership of slaves was foundational to their wealth and worldview.

Published by: University of Georgia Press


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Title Page, Copyright

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pp. v-vi

List of Sidebars

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pp. vii-viii

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Lisa Grove

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pp. ix-x

As the oldest art museum in the South, Telfair Museums in the heart of Savannah’s Historic District has a vital role to play in telling the story of urban slavery.
Beginning with the preservation of the former slave quarters at the Owens-Thomas House in the mid-1990s, Telfair Museums has demonstrated its commitment to promoting new understanding of this important topic. The thousands of visitors who walk through our doors each year hear a broad story about the site and all of its inhabitants, including free and enslaved men, women, and children...

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pp. xi-xii

With the preservation of the Owens-Thomas House slave quarters in the mid-1990s, Telfair Museums began introducing visitors to a broader spectrum of its former inhabitants than before — white and black; men, women and children; enslaved and free. This new effort in interpretation began a process of telling a more complete story, “the whole story,” as Alice Walker would say, about the house and all of its inhabitants...


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pp. xiii-xiv

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Leslie M. Harris and Daina Ramey Berry

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pp. xv-xxiv

We are amid a renaissance in the study of slavery and emancipation in the United States. One of the prime areas of research encompasses the lives and contributions of African Americans, enslaved and free, in urban areas.1 Slavery and Freedom in Savannah brings together the latest scholarship on one of the most important port cities of the South, from its founding through the early twentieth century. This book positions slavery and emancipation, along with their aftermath, as a central set of events that left no one in the city untouched and that cast shadows into the twentieth century...

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1. The Transatlantic Slave Trade Comes to Georgia

James A. McMillin

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pp. 1-25

Georgia is often touted as the only British North American colony to outlaw slavery. True, the colony’s founders, the Georgia Trustees, rejected slavery soon after the colony came into being in the early 1730s, but their ban only delayed the expansion of slavery, for a little more than a decade. After the trustees removed restrictions on slavery, the slave population grew rapidly, increasing from four hundred in 1751 to some sixteen thousand on the eve of the Revolutionary War...

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2. “The King of England’s Soldiers”: Armed Blacks in Savannah and Its Hinterlands during the Revolutionary War Era, 1778–1787

Timothy J. Lockley

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pp. 26-41

The Revolutionary War was never simply a struggle between the British on the one side and Americans on the other. Americans themselves were deeply divided about whether a war to achieve independence from Britain was a good, moral, or legal thing to do, and friends, neighbors, and even families split between those loyal to Britain and those supporting the American patriots. Neither was the war of concern only to whites. Southern black people hoped that the war would mean the end of slavery...

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3. At the Intersection of Cotton and Commerce: Antebellum Savannah and Its Slaves

Susan Eva O’Donovan

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pp. 42-68

When the topic of antebellum slave labor comes up, it is all too common to picture vast plantation landscapes populated by gangs of black workers making their weary way through fields of growing cotton. That is not an incorrect image. By the end of the antebellum era, close to 70 percent of America’s slaves lived in the rural Deep South, and most of them were involved in the production of cotton. Those who were not cultivated the region’s other great staples: sugar, tobacco, and rice...

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4. To “Venerate the Spot” of “Airy Visions”: Slavery and the Romantic Conception of Place in Mary Telfair’s Savannah

Jeffrey Robert Young

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pp. 69-92

In the summer of 1828, Mary Telfair experienced “a circumstance of a most unpleasant nature.” Heading homeward by carriage through the streets of Savannah after a visit with friends, Telfair and her brother Alexander looked into the evening’s “fine moonlight” and saw, to their horror, that their coachman was no longer in his seat. “In a state of intoxication,” the aged slave had toppled out of the carriage, leaving the Telfairs helplessly trapped inside the moving vehicle...

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5. Slave Life in Savannah: Geographies of Autonomy and Control

Leslie M. Harris and Daina Ramey Berry

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pp. 93-123

In February 1822, Freeman Walker of Augusta wrote to Alexander Telfair of Savannah on behalf of Dorothy Walton of Florida for information regarding “Sanders,” a “negro man of hers” who had been living in Savannah. This was a communication among some of Georgia’s wealthiest and most elite politicians and slave owners. Walker had served as a U.S. senator and congressman from Georgia and as mayor of Augusta, a post he took up again in 1823...

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6. Free Black Life in Savannah

Janice L. Sumler-Edmond

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pp. 124-139

A notice in the Daily Georgian of December 6, 1819, provides important clues about the nature of free black life in Savannah: “Lewis [Louis] Mirault subscriber will be absent from the State for a few months. Alexander Hunter will act as his attorney during his absence. Messrs. Gaudry and Dufaure are authorized to receive his debts.” The unusual nature of this notice was not in its message, but in the person of the subscriber. Louis Mirault was not the typical white tradesman taking a business trip...

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7. Wartime Workers, Moneymakers: Black Labor in Civil War–Era Savannah

Jacqueline Jones

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pp. 140-160

By the summer of 1863, the city of Savannah was showing the devastating effects of a seemingly endless war, the gracious port of antebellum years having been transformed into a congested, weed-choked, dilapidated military entrepôt. Among white men and women, initial, wild enthusiasm for secession had gradually given way to distress over a number of frightening developments...

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8. “We Defy You!”: Politics and Violence in Reconstruction Savannah

Jonathan M. Bryant

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pp. 161-184

During the night of December 31, 1864, the schooner Rebecca Hertz stole through the labyrinth of creeks winding through the islands near the city of Savannah. Whether by skill or by luck, she avoided Union warships and the guns of Fort Pulaski, finally dropping anchor opposite the city gasworks sometime before dawn on January 1. The crew, convinced it had safely run the Union blockade, was stunned when the rising sun revealed the Stars and Stripes of the United States flying over the city...

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9. “The Fighting Has Not Been in Vain”: African American Intellectuals in Jim Crow Savannah

Bobby J. Donaldson

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pp. 185-212

On the morning of January 2, 1893, the crowds gathered early along East Broad and Liberty Streets for Savannah’s annual Emancipation Day parade and celebration. The processional of dignitaries, bands, fraternal groups, civic organizations, and military battalions moved toward Chippewa Square. They were led by James Middleton’s famous band and Colonel John H. Deveaux, the highly respected leader of the “colored” state militia...


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pp. 213-238

Further Reading

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pp. 239-248


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pp. 249-254


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pp. 255-262

E-ISBN-13: 9780820347066
E-ISBN-10: 082034706X
Print-ISBN-13: 9780820344102

Page Count: 288
Illustrations: 58 photos, 7 tables, 3 maps
Publication Year: 2014

OCLC Number: 873805918
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Slavery and Freedom in Savannah

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • African Americans -- Georgia -- Savannah -- History.
  • Slavery -- Georgia -- Savannah -- History.
  • Antislavery movements -- Georgia -- Savannah -- History.
  • Slaves -- Emancipation -- Georgia -- Savannah.
  • Free African Americans -- Georgia -- Savannah -- History.
  • African Americans -- Georgia -- Savannah -- Social life and customs.
  • Savannah (Ga.) -- History.
  • Savannah (Ga.) -- Race relations.
  • Savannah (Ga.) -- Social life and customs.
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