What do you see with your mind’s eye when you hear the words ‘Deep South’? A scene from “Gone with the Wind”? Stately antebellum mansions, their long winding driveways flanked by towering trees draped with tufts of Spanish moss? For me, that was the image–and only image, really–that came to mind. But that was before I spent six days in Savannah.
Three weeks ago, I joined family members in Savannah, Georgia for a week’s holiday. (It was a working-holiday for one of us.) My family had rented a spacious house that was part elegant antebellum home, part modern add-on, complete with air-conditioning and swimming pool, of course. From this comfortable home base the six of us would set out each morning to explore Savannah and the surrounding region. Over the course of the next six days I did indeed encounter the Deep South of my imagination.
Savannah’s majestic trees, with their trails of ghost-like Spanish moss–especially those in nearby Forsyth Park–were even more spectacular than I had pictured.
Magnificent magnolia trees, many massive in size, were everywhere (not at all like my 5-year-old magnolia that eventually succumbed to ‘wet feet’ back home in a more northerly climate).
I encountered flowers I have never seen any place else. This one reminded me of a bottle-brush.
Who does not think of alligators when they think about the southern US? This is a gator I saw at the Oatland Island Wildlife Center.
Over the next six days my family and I visited historic Fort Pulaski, checked out Georgia’s wildlife at the Oatland Island Wildlife Center, explored the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens, swam in the crashing waves of the Atlantic at a beach on Tybee Island, sampled the catfish at Uncle Bubba’s Oyster House, ate lots of Georgia’s world-famous peaches and peanuts–I could go on and on. Savannah did not disappoint!
Then, one evening, walking along River Street in Savannah’s Riverfront district with its candy shops, restaurants, and stores, I encountered a monument which would alter forever the way I pictured the Deep South. It was a bronze statue erected in 2002 depicting four members of an African-American family–a father, mother, and two children–embracing each other after emancipation, the chains which once held them lying broken at their feet.
The poem by Maya Angelou inscribed on the base of the monument continues to haunt me:
We were stolen, sold, and bought together from the African continent. We got on the slave ships together. We lay back to belly in the holds of the slave ships in each others excrement and urine together, sometimes died together, and our lifeless bodies thrown overboard together. Today, we are standing up together, with faith and even some joy.
Of course I knew about Savannah’s connection with the slave trade, but that night, in the midst of the crowds milling about on Savannah’s Riverfront, I comprehended the horrors of slavery in a way I never had before. Savannah was established in 1733, and by the 1740s slaves were being openly sold in the colony. With the establishment of rice and cotton plantations in the region, slaves were imported directly from the rice-growing areas of West Africa. The port of Savannah was an important receiver of those slaves. I saw a model of one of those slaving ships in Savannah’s Maritime Museum, its hold filled with tiny black figures lined up next to each other like so many logs.
Slaves who survived the unspeakable horrors of the Atlantic crossing were branded and confined to holding pens, like the ones below, til they were sold.
Thankfully, the nightmare of slavery came to an end. In December 1864, Savannah was occupied by the Union General William Tecumseh Sherman and his army. I saw the church, Second African Baptist Church, where Sherman read the Emancipation Proclamation to Savannah’s citizens. Second African Baptist church had been founded in 1802 by Andrew Bryan, Georgia’s first native African-American religious leader and a former slave. General Sherman, speaking from the steps of the church, promised the newly-freed slaves 40 acres and a mule. This was the same church where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would later preach his “I Have a Dream” sermon.
I arrived in Savannah the day after the verdict in the George Zimmerman-Martin Trayvon trial was handed down. I wondered if I would encounter protests, and if not protests, then maybe hateful looks. I encountered neither. The African-American population was friendly and welcoming. I even thought I sensed some of that ‘joy’ that Maya Angelou talked about. I’m glad I spent six days in Savannah. Now, whenever I hear the words ‘Deep South’, I will see the slavery monument on Savannah’s Riverfront, and the trees decked out with Spanish moss.