Slavery and Freedom in Savannah

Telfair Museums
Leslie M. Harris; Dalna Ramey Berry
Tania Sammons
Savannah, GA

A major publication, a museum exhibition, and a three-day city symposium, Slavery and Freedom in Savannah, organized by Telfair Museums, marks the launch of a full-scale attempt to tell the story of American urban slavery in the South. Immersed in the lives of the free and enslaved people associated with the original Telfair historic homes, namely the Owens-Thomas House and the Telfair mansion, Slavery and Freedom builds on scholarship across fields of history, literature, anthropology, and art to provide insight into a rarely explored aspect of the collective American past.

When most people think of slavery, they imagine vast plantations, cotton, and pained bodies of people sweating under the sting of a summer sun. Slavery and Freedom examines another side of this tangled history, moving from fields into bustling urban centers, revealing the complex lives of slaves and their owners who brushed elbows under the same roof. This book and accompanying exhibition builds off the stories of the enslaved members of two famous southern homes (now two historic museums) in order to paint a broader portrait of urban slavery across 300 years of Savannah history.

A landmark project in Telfair Museums’ ongoing mission to fully preserve and reinterpret the Owens-Thomas House, Slavery and Freedom began with a three-day symposium in  2011, featuring lectures and discussions with scholars of U.S. and African American History. Before this project, slavery was virtually absent from discussions of Savannah’s history and culture, especially in the case of museum interpretations. This gap is why Telfair Museums initiated this project, to bring this story to the community in a way that would be true and resonant, and reach the widest possible audience.

Modeled after the successful exhibition and publication “Slavery in New York”, the Slavery and Freedom in Savannah symposium, book, and exhibition is the first attempt to explore and interpret this narrative through a Southern lens. This story covers three centuries of life in Georgia, bridging the same 300 years of American culture that inspires the art of Telfair’s permanent collection. This overlap creates a new dialogue between the museums’ gallery walls and the African American experience, building a fresh and unique appreciation for both.