On Thursday the College welcomed historian Leslie M. Harris. As one the Avery Research Center’s featured lectures, Harris presented her newly published book “Slavery and Freedom in Savannah.”
The Emory University professor expressed her goal to uncover and reveal common misconceptions regarding the history of African-Americans in the United States. Harris, determined to discover these new ideas, uses teaching, research projects and documentation to present interesting arguments to the general public. Subsequently, Harris’ literary repertoire can be seen in a multitude of works such as “In The Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City,” a publication that examines not only the Southern black experience, but Northern participation during the nation’s Antebellum period.
Just as Harris presented a lesser known history of the North, she wanted to uncover a lesser known history of slavery within Savannah, Ga. — a topic rarely addressed and commonly misunderstood in Southern cities. Her determination to set the record straight led to “Slavery and Freedom in Savannah.”
While on vacation in 2008, Harris visited the Owens-Thomas House, a historic site complete with slave quarters in Savannah. “The Owens-Thomas House has been investing in its history of slavery and the staff was thinking about the next stage of work they wanted to do, which was this book,” Harris said. Partnering with scholar Daina Ramey Berry, Harris brought together 30 experts who produced a collection of essays that cover the extensive history of slavery and the lives of African-Americans in Savannah.
Harris noted that Savannah was not only a major slave city, but it was the the third largest exporter of goods, especially cotton, in the United States, making it the prime location to unveil slavery in urban regions. Much of the historic sites in Savannah are preserved and can still be observed today.
“We’re lucky that the setting, the archives, enable us to study the city and the legacy of slavery,” Harris mentioned.
“Slavery and Freedom in Savannah” highlights the fact that urban areas were important to the institution of slavery. Harris said that “slave labor [was] adaptable,” and the practices that were carried out on rural Southern plantations were also instituted in Southern cities.
Other historic cities such as Charleston, S.C. and New Orleans still have existing slave quarters that serve as locations for scholars to study and as tourist destinations. “Then there are places where quarters [have] just been remodeled into garden apartments,” Berry said. “It’s there, but it’s a history not told as often as the plantation story.”
Harris and Berry stressed the fact that those enslaved in cities were under just as much heavy authority of their white owners as those enslaved in rural areas.“We sometimes try to find a place where slavery was better or easier,” Berry said, but few exist.
In the collection of essays, readers can find information ranging from the development of the first African Baptist Church to Sherman’s March to the Sea and the Siege of Savannah. The book also highlights that the research done with the Owens-Thomas House led to a large recovery of the names of black individuals working in the city.
To close the presentation, Harris expressed that even with the research already done, there is still more to Savannah’s story that is waiting to be told. It is through these untold stories, connections and deep roots not just in Savannah, but also Charleston, that will lead people to discover their family history and background.
“Slavery and Freedom in Savannah” is now available to purchase at most major bookstores or online.