History is never black and white. Even when it comes to its darkest chapters, including slavery, slivers of light shine through it. We gain hope, resilience and courage by bathing in this light. And for this year’s annual Juneteenth celebration in Savannah, Telfair Museums featured a speaker who did just that.
Dr. Whittington Johnson spoke at Second African Baptist Church about Savannah’s African-American elite in the years from 1790 to 1830. This was a time of incredible privation and prejudice against blacks in Savannah. Yet, a relatively small number of “free” blacks survived outside of slavery. And an even smaller number of these made decent lives for themselves as part of a well-respected core of African-American leaders.
And I put the word “free” in quotation marks because, as Dr. Johnson, a history professor at University of Miami, explains, all of Savannah’s blacks, enslaved and non-enslaved, lived by separate rules that made financial well-being and esteem even more rare and noteworthy during this time.
“The elite was an amazing group of high-achieving African-Americans,” Dr. Johnson says. “Most of the free African-American elite acquired their estates, slave holdings, businesses and leadership positions in religious and educational institutions through their own efforts.”
Dr. Johnson called them elite. But they were hardly what we’d call the “one percent” today. The African-American elite during this period were butchers, tailors, barbers, seamstresses and ministers. Their success was driven, in part, by a few things that made Savannah different from other slave-holding cities, such as Charleston and New Orleans.
“The total separation of the races in all walks of life that characterized Southern society in the age of Jim Crow apparently was not practiced in Savannah at this time,” Johnson says. “African-Americans and whites lived in the same wards, attended the same churches – except the Baptists – and shopped in the City Market.”
Savannah also had less of a “mulatto aristocracy” and more independent black churches than these other places. And the black elite kept less of their African identity, in the form of everything from child naming patterns to collective money-keeping, than elsewhere.
Johnson provides overall numbers for these generalizations and then breaks them down into handy profiles: Andrew Bryan, a minister at First African Baptist Church; Anthony Odingsell, a planter and slave-owning black who lived on the barrier islands; and Jean-Baptiste du Bergier, a tailor who was part of the city’s Haitian immigrant and Catholic community. He says they didn’t leave this world with much money by today’s standards.
“Perhaps the greatest legacy of the first generation elite, however, was not the property that they bequeathed but the message their excellent examples inadvertently conveyed to future generations,” he says. “African-Americans should not become hopeless.”
This lecture definitely complicates our generalizations about the slave-holding era in Savannah. And in doing so, perhaps, we can take some of our own ways of thinking today and complicate them, too, for the betterment of ourselves and our community. The talk is 33 minutes long. It was presented by Telfair Museums. Dr. Johnson has written several books on African-American history, including “Black Savannah: 1788-1864.”
Open Those Bright Eyes” Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
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