Visiting old Savannah


Homes like these were common sights during a recent visit to Savannah, Georgia. (Pamela O’Meara photos/Review)

The First American Baptist Church, located across the street from our hotel, was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Those escaping slavery were kept under floorboards in the church to wait until it was safe to leave.

Forsyth Park, the largest in Savannah, is famous for its fountain, walking paths and trees draped with Spanish moss.

Each morning during a visit to Savannah, Georgia, I looked out my hotel window to see First American Baptist Church. 

It’s the oldest black church in the U.S. and was a stop on the Underground Railroad, a place where enslaved people hid under the floorboards with holes drilled in them so they could breathe, waiting to move north.

It was a reminder of the history surrounding me in Savannah, an old Southern city unlike anywhere in Minnesota. I visited there in May with my daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter.

 

Parks

Savannah was built around 22 park-like squares, including Calhoun Square, named after John C. Calhoun, vice president under John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, and a staunch defender of slavery. Unlike the Twin Cities, which recently removed Calhoun’s name from the lake now known as Bde Maka Ska, Savannah seemed to take little issue with the name. 

The town’s squares feature towering oak trees covered with Spanish moss and blossoming magnolia trees. Forsyth Park, the largest and most famous, has a lovely and much-photographed fountain.

We passed Forsyth Park on a trolley tour our first day in the city. The tour also went through a historic district of restored 18th century homes and passed by the Savannah River, where cotton bales were once shipped from farther down south. 

Later that same day, we waited in line more than an hour for lunch at Mrs. Wilkes’ Dining Room on West Jones Street. The building the restaurant is in dates to 1870. 

While waiting, we got talking to a few fellow Minnesotans who said they saw the long line and figured this must be a special place — and it was. For a number of years the building was a boarding house. In 1943, it was developed into a restaurant by Sema Wilkes, who ran it until her death at 95 in 2002. 

We sat with other diners at a table of 10, family-style, to try two dozen different dishes of traditional Southern food — fried chicken, biscuits, pork, sweet potatoes, fried green tomatoes, okra, collard greens, banana pudding and more.

 

Charleston

During our trip, we spent a day in Charleston, South Carolina, a two-hour hour drive from Savannah, to visit Fort Sumter where Confederate guns fired the first shots of the Civil War. 

We took a ferry to the fort, which was built on a man-made island in the bay. While much of the fort was destroyed during the war, the five-foot thick brick outer walls were still there. We could walk along paths made with seashells and gravel to see guns still positioned as if they were ready to be fired.

Our visit to Charleston also included a horse and carriage tour through the city’s historical district. We learned that a certain shade of blue paint, made of buttermilk and lime juice painted on the ceilings of front porches, called haint blue, was adopted from Gullah African American culture to keep bad spirits away from a home. The Gullah live along the southern coast of the U.S. on coastal plains and islands.

 

Learning more in Savannah

Back in Savannah for Mother’s Day, we took a golf cart ride around Bonaventure Cemetery, considered by many to be one of the most beautiful cemeteries in the world. 

Giant oaks dripping with moss spread their branches wide over the cemetery full of marble statues. Once a plantation overlooking the Wilmington River, the cemetery is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

It was a very interesting place, made famous by “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” the novel by John Berendt. 

Johnny Mercer, who wrote “Moon River,” one of my favorite songs and reminiscent of my college years, is buried there. So is Conrad Aiken, a prolific writer and winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.

We enjoyed a number of unique eateries, including Pirates’ House for lunch. It’s housed in one of oldest buildings in Georgia, dating to 1734. At one point it was an inn and a rendezvous spot for pirates and sailors due to its proximity to the Savannah River. The story we were told was that Robert Louis Stevenson wrote “Treasure Island” there, mentioning Pirates’ House in the book.

On our last morning in Savannah we headed to the Owens-Thomas House and slave quarters, which were built between 1816 and 1819. Our tour guide explained how enslaved people lived and worked in the city and also on nearby rice, tobacco and cotton plantations. One wall in the carriage house entryway had the names of dozens of slaves who once worked there.

Despite the beauty of Savannah, seeing the slave quarters at Owens-Thomas and staying at a hotel overlooking an Underground Railroad stop were reminders of the city’s dark history, something that needs to be remembered and acknowledged.

 

–Pamela O’Meara can be reached at roseville@lillienews.com.

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