Monday, November 24, 2014

Tough History

 African Americans journeyed West with the gold rush and were a presence in Montana’s first communities. While some were freemen of color, some came as slaves with their white owners and others arrived after the Emancipation. The unspeakable, deep-seated tragedy of human commerce today is difficult to understand. The National Trust for Historic Preservation’s recent annual conference in Savannah, Georgia, offered a unique opportunity revisit this history. It was a powerful, thought provoking experience.

Although Savannah, settled in the 1739, initially banned slavery, the city and surrounding plantations desperately needed laborers. So slaves were imported from nearby South Carolina, and in 1749, the ban was lifted. Savannah became one of three major ports of entry for West African slaves.

Researcher and tour guide Karen B. Wortham of the Slave Dwelling Project, Inc., led a small group of us to some of the city’s little-known places related to the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. She recounted Savannah’s darker, gut-wrenching past and showcased the places that served the lucrative industry of human commerce.

Savannah's River Street barracoons were holding areas for slaves newly arrived from West Africa.
Among the places we visited, the River Street “barracoons” vividly interpret this appalling history. The word comes from the Spanish barrac√≥n, or barracks, where slaves awaiting transport were held. After the grueling passage before arriving at port, traders separated the sick and weak. Some they quarantined, but others they chained together and tossed overboard. Men, women, and children healthy enough to work were then chained and “stored” in these cave-like holding areas until public auction.

The barracoons are built of gray Savannah bricks made by slaves whose fingerprints are sometimes found in the clay.
We ended at the nation’s oldest black church, the First African–Baptist Church, where Karen shared its long and impressive history. In the square across the street, Martin Luther King practiced his “I Have a Dream” speech. The current historic church building dates to 1855, and its sanctuary is elegant in its sober simplicity. Downstairs in the fellowship hall, West African Congo cosmograms—diamond-shaped prayer symbols—drilled into the wooden floor, were intended to appear as part of religious ritual. However, they actually served as air holes for runaway slaves concealed below.
Learn more about slavery in Savannah and the rich history of the church here.

No comments:

Post a Comment