Walking in the footsteps of history is hard to do. Am I in the right place? How do I know? The march of time has changed so much.
Landscape architect and educator Kwesi DeGraft-Hanson wanted to walk in the footsteps of an important episode in American history.
It was the nation’s largest recorded slave sale. Georgia plantation owner Pierce Butler sold 429 men, women and children over two days in 1859.
It was one of the many pin pricks that led to the Civil War. And it took place at a long-forgotten place of amusement, a race track, in Savannah, Ga.
In this powerful 67-minute talk presented by Telfair Museums, DeGraft-Hanson takes us on his personal journey to find, map and envision these painful days and the events that led to and followed them. The sale was called “The Weeping Time.”
“I wondered how many such places we walk by or drive by daily oblivious to their poignant histories,” he says. “I was struck by the binary opportunities to both venerate space and desecrate it.”
Today, the 50-acre site is a lumber yard (Bradley), an elementary school (Otis Brock) and an Interstate highway (516) in West Savannah. Butler’s contemporaries knew the area as Ten Broeck.
“The tears that were sown at Ten Broeck became the river of freedom for not just the African-Americans but for all of us,” he says. “It’s time to honor all our ancestors to celebrate them and each other.”
Before they were sold, Butler’s slaves also endured harsh treatment, squalid living conditions and high infant mortality at his two rice-growing low lands in McIntosh County.
Today, one of those plantations is a wildlife management area (Butler Island) bisected by a scenic highway (17) on the Altamaha River. And another is a seaside luxury golf course community (Hampton Plantation) on St. Simons Island.
“[These sites] are what I term ‘silent, hidden and erased landscapes of slavery,’” DeGraft-Hanson says. “It is important to envision these landscapes as part of our commemorative attempts to honor those people who lived and labored in these places.”
He gets behind the event’s main characters, including Pierce Butler and his abolitionist English wife, the Shakespearean actress Fanny Kemble. But he also takes us into the lives of slaves, including an incredible few by name.
Some amazing connections emerged in his research. One was a California woman who traced her ancestors to one of a handful of Butler slaves whom a northern writer happened to name in an 1858 newspaper account.
And finally, he argues passionately for a national monument, along the lines of those for the Holocaust, the attacks of September 11th and the Japanese-Americans’ internship in World War II, to commemorate the lives of slaves.
“We are the generations that can be honest about slavery’s injurious nature to all of us, not just the enslaved or their descendants,” he says. “We need to move forward united as humanity, as Americans, red, white and blue, not black or white or red.”
He suggests Savannah as a natural location for the site.
I recorded his talk at Telfair Museum’s Jepson Center for the Arts.