The latest restoration at Savannah’s Owens-Thomas House & Slave Quarters is part of a national movement to change the way we talk about American history.
“Anytime you want to see enslaved people’s quarters in Savannah,” says curator Shannon Browning-Mullis, “go to the oldest parts of town, find the biggest houses, and walk down the lanes.”
It’s a crisp winter day downtown, and I’m following Browning-Mullis’s instruction, eyeing the antebellum mansions that are grand enough that they could have been among the 30 percent of Savannah households that owned enslaved people in the mid-nineteenth century. While I explore, a tour guide on a passing trolley is rattling off the utopian ideals of Georgia’s founder, James Oglethorpe.
In the earliest days of the colony, Oglethorpe declared a prohibition against a few things he feared would make Georgians less industrious, including land ownership, inheritance, rum and slavery. To restrict slavery in the 1700s South is a surprising inclination; less surprising is that Oglethorpe’s prohibition was, at first, ardently opposed, and soon after, patently ignored. Though there had already been hundreds of enslaved people openly bought and sold in the city of Savannah, when the prohibition was lifted statewide in 1750, the floodgates were opened.
Auction blocks stood in Ellis Square, enslaved people holding pens in Johnson Square. The city’s most prominent businessmen — familiar names like James Habersham — built their fortunes in the Atlantic slave trade. Savannah would come to be the port of entry for nearly every enslaved person in the colony and the site of the largest slave auction on American soil. If you look in the right places, physical vestiges of this brutal legacy are still visible to this day, and sometimes, in our own backyards.
That’s what the Telfair Museum’s Owens-Thomas House — which has been open to visitors since 1954 — uncovered on their own Abercorn Street property nearly 30 years ago.
Shannon Browning-Mullis has been a curator of the Telfair’s Slavery and Freedom in Savannah project at the Owens-Thomas House for the past six years. She tells me that in 1990, tenants were living in apartments in the Owens-Thomas carriage house. When they moved out, the space was slated for renovation into administrative offices for museum staff. “The museum came in to get ready for that renovation,” Browning-Mullis recalls. “They started to pull down the drop plaster ceilings, and take out some walls, and they realized that the original fireplaces, ceilings some of the original floors were still intact. So they paused everything and said: ‘We have the space. It’s still here. What do we do?'”
They had discovered one of the oldest and best preserved urban enslaved person’s quarters in the American South. A chipped layer of haint blue paint, hand-mixed with indigo pigment and lye and applied to ward off spirits, still clings to the rutty ceiling beams. Stakeholders of the National Historic Landmark home knew they needed to share their discovery with the public, but how would they approach it? “This is not a story anybody was telling at the time,” Browning-Mullis reminds me. “Certainly not anybody in Savannah.”
At the time the Owens-Thomas House was built, nearly one in seven people living in the United States was enslaved. In Savannah, it was one in three. From the home’s completion in 1819 to the end of the Civil War, Savannah’s wealthy white residents were equaled in number — if not outnumbered — by the black men, women and children who quietly lived and labored alongside them.
On the Owens-Thomas tours, as with the other house tours in Savannah, the enslaved residents had never been discussed, and no emphasis was placed on the fact that two most prominent owners of the home — Richard Richardson who moved into the house with his family in 1819, and Savannah mayor George Welshman Owens, who moved in with his family in 1833 — each derived their personal fortunes from slavery: Richardson made his fortune from shipping people, mostly children, from Savannah to New Orleans, where they were sold into slavery. Owens purchased the house with profits earned on the backs of some 400 adults and children on his plantations.
The Slavery & Freedom Project has changed the way the Owens-Thomas House is presented to visitors, opening up, for the first time, even the darkest corners of a beautiful home. As of this past November, the property has a new name (now the Owens-Thomas House & Slave Quarters), and on the tours, the restored butler’s pantry and working cellar get as much attention as the gilded banisters and neoclassical tea sets. Restoration of the basement, kitchen, scullery and bathing chamber bring these spaces back to life, and interactive exhibits share the stories and daily lives of individual people would have used them, including Emma, the Owens’ nanny; Diane, their cook; and Peter, their butler.
Telling the stories of Emma, Diane, Peter and other enslaved people owned by the Owens family was not easy. Like the rest of Savannah’s slave population, they were rendered all but invisible in the recorded history of the city’s elite. But, like private eyes, Browning-Mullis and her team were able to piece together details using archival documents. On ship manifests, they found names, genders, ages and sometimes physical descriptions. In census records, they confirmed the Owens enslaved people were illiterate — as of 1839, it was illegal to teach enslaved people to read or write. Jail records told them when and how enslaved people were punished for severe infractions, or stowed for “safe keeping.” Property lists prepared upon the deaths of the Owens men itemized their possessions, which included the people they bought and sold.
Scant documentation isn’t the only reason it has taken 60 years since the opening of the house as a museum to tell its full story: Only in the past decade have American museums begun to confront this chapter of our history directly. In its new permutation, the Owens-Thomas joins other historic homes across the South — Andrew Jackson’s the Hermitage, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello — that offer visitors a complete and truthful narrative of how the richest and poorest people in the country lived together. Closer to home, it joins African-American heritage-focused tours — Footprints of Savannah, Underground Savannah Tours, Day Clean Journeys, Pin Point Heritage Museum to name a few — who are already sharing this story with visitors.
Browning-Mullis and the Owens-Thomas House team believe an understanding of our history is a key to our national identity — so it’s not just tourists they hope to attract. In the coming school year, every eighth grade classroom in Savannah will be invited to visit the Owens-Thomas House & Slave Quarters for a humanizing history lesson on this topic many schools struggle to teach.
All Chatham County residents may explore the new exhibition for free on Sundays from noon to 4 p.m. through May 26. We are never too old to pick up a deeper knowledge of antebellum Savannah, and a new way to look at this city, whether you are walking through its squares or down its lanes.