Savannah slave house museum illuminates early African-American experience

Owens-Thomas House and Slave Quarters Museum tour in Savannah provides insightful background to the Black Lives Matter movement

The wall of names of verified enslaved persons who worked in the Owens-Thomas House over the years. Planks were left blank for the names that have been lost to history. (Craig Davis/Craigslegztravels.com)
The wall of names of verified enslaved persons who worked in the Owens-Thomas House over the years. Planks were left blank for the names that have been lost to history. (Craig Davis/Craigslegztravels.com)

By Craig Davis, CraigslegzTravels.com

Savannah’s reputation as one of the premier tourist party towns in the country is well founded.

Sure the city throws one of the biggest St. Patrick’s Day celebrations anywhere, but fun, food and drink is the order of each and every day. It’s not only permissible to stroll the historic district with your favorite adult beverage in hand (plastic or paper cup), it’s encouraged.

There is a sobering side, though, to this quaint city: the 116 years when Savannah was at the center of the slave trade in Georgia.

Until recently, that shameful chapter was conveniently glossed over in the tourism historical spin.

That changed in late 2018 when a popular tour of one of the most historic mansions began presenting the real story of the property at a time when 30 percent of Savannah households were supported by slaves.

The Owen-Thomas mansion has been a popular tourist attraction in Savannah for decades, but only in the past few years has the full story of the property been featured in the tour. (Craig Davis/Craigslegztravels.com)
The Owen-Thomas mansion has been a popular tourist attraction in Savannah for decades, but only in the past few years has the full story of the property been featured in the tour. (Craig Davis/Craigslegztravels.com)

In this more honest rendering of Savannah history the Owens-Thomas House and Slave Quarters Museum tour (currently closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic) focuses on the enslaved persons who lived and labored at the house in the first half of the 19th Century.

“Any given time between 1819 when the building was complete and the end of the Civil War, there were between eight and 14 enslaved people here on the site,” Shannon Browning-Mullis, Owens-Thomas House Curator, said when the new exhibit opened. “Meaning they were at least half or often a majority of the people who lived here, so we’re just not telling an authentic full history without their stories.”

Names on the wall

It is jarring enough to read about the auction blocks that were once in Ellis Square and slave holding pens in adjacent Johnson Square, at the heart of what is now the tourist district.

The reality strikes with more impact when you see where slavery was a day-to-day reality.

The Owens-Thomas House is the best-preserved example of renowned architect William Jay’s work. Until the end of the Civil War, between eight and 14 enslaved people at a time labored there. (Craig Davis/Craigslegztravels.com)
The Owens-Thomas House is the best-preserved example of renowned architect William Jay’s work. Until the end of the Civil War, between eight and 14 enslaved people at a time labored there. (Craig Davis/Craigslegztravels.com)

Former owners of the mansion — Richard Richardson and George Owens — made fortunes off of about 600 enslaved people — some shipped out of the port of Savannah, the others toiling uncompensated on Owens’ Georgia plantation.

At the beginning of the Owens-Thomas House tour there is a wall with 600 wooden planks representing those people, some bearing the names of those who have been documented.

Long hours in the cellar

More poignant is a visit to the cellar of the 200-year-old mansion and the cramped kitchen where Diane, the enslaved cook, prepared meals from dawn until late at night on an iron stove in unimaginable heat.

Enslaved people worked long hours in the heat in the cellar of the Owens-Thomas house. Only recently has that story been told on the historic tour. (Craig Davis/Craigslegztravels.com)
Enslaved people worked long hours in the heat in the cellar of the Owens-Thomas house. Only recently has that story been told on the historic tour. (Craig Davis/Craigslegztravels.com)

The Owens-Thomas House is the best-preserved example of renowned architect William Jay’s work and innovative for its time. It was the first house in Savannah with indoor plumbing and is believed to be the first in America to have a water closet on two floors.

That is like pointing out the scenery on the Bataan Death March.

Situated on Oglethorpe Square, which honors the founder of Savannah, the Owens-Thomas house has been open to the public since 1954. Until the addition of the new interpretive exhibit, tours were all about the English Regency-style design and fine furnishings, such as the gilded banisters and neoclassical tea sets.

The opulence is in stark contrast to the building beyond the courtyard in the rear of the property, which was the slave quarters and carriage house.

Finally telling full story of Owens-Thomas house

The renovation uncovered a revealing story when the plaster board was stripped off the walls and ceiling.

The chipped layer of haint blue paint on the ceiling beams is said to be the best preserved example of a common superstition of enslaved people in North America. They applied it to their ceilings and doorways to ward off evil spirits.

It is only in the past decade or so that American museums have begun presenting an unvarnished story of slavery. The Owens-Thomas House tour, operated by the Telfair Museums, holds nothing back, including documentation about the relationships between the enslaved people and their owners.

It was difficult to know what others in our tour group were feeling, particularly several persons of color. Fran and I experienced an array of reactions, principally anger and revulsion.

This is the flipside of fun and frolicsome Savannah that makes it one of the nation’s most popular tourist destinations — Travel + Leisure Magazine ranked it as the fourth-best U.S. city to visit in 2019.

The Georgia city’s reputation as a tourist destination is well founded on its beauty, hospitality, well-preserved architecture, dining, walkability and entertainment options. A visit to the Owens-Thomas House and Slave Quarters Museum provides a more rounded understanding of Savannah, and America’s slave-holding past.

There are three popular Telfair Museums in Savannah, Georgia, featuring art, architecture and history. They are temporarily closed due to the coronavirus.

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About craigslegz 73 Articles
Travel is about discovery, and I learn most about a place when I explore it on foot. Craigslegz Travels is about favorite places and people, and advice to aid fellow travelers. My emphasis is on venturing off well-worn paths. - Craig Davis