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History Lessons

During the past few days, while working with the Ossabaw Island Foundation on this week’s filled-to-capacity symposium on coastal Georgia’s African American history, I’ve gleaned several pieces of new information, mostly from incidental conversations, that have filled in a few voids in my awareness of global, national, and local history.

Earlier this month, I read Linda Sickler’s Connect Savannah story on the digNubia traveling exhibit at Savannah State University, interpreting to young students and adults the archeology and history of Nubia, a civilization from 6,000 years ago that was located in present-day Sudan and Egypt. Ron Bailey, the SSU professor who is spearheading the local exhibit planning, reminded me about this interactive archeological program plus lecture series while coordinating the teacher’s workshop he’s leading at the history symposium.

The digNubia exhibit ends next week. This week, Judeith McCray of Juneteenth Productions is scheduled to lecture on her experience as writer and producer of the documentary “Nubia and the Mysteries of Kush,” being aired three times a week in February on Comcast Channel 7.

Last Monday, Dr. Deborah L. Mack, an independent museum consultant who lives in Savannah, dropped off for the symposium registration packets150 hot-off-the-press copies of a brochure for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, a Smithsonian museum in development since 2003. Mack is a member of the museum’s Scholarly Advisory Committee. Although the physical museum isn’t scheduled to be built for several years, the NMAAHC website features extensive online exhibits and resources, at http://nmaahc.si.edu/.

But it’s the story of “The Weeping Time” that got my attention over the past several weeks. Between conversations about audio visual equipment and organizing nametags, pieces of the largest slave sale in U.S. history started coming together. It happened in Savannah, on March 2 and 3, 1859, at a horse racetrack not far from where I-16 and I-516 now come together. During two days of relentless rain, 436 men, women, and children, the second and third generations of families who had never been apart, were sold to pay off the debts of Darien plantation owner Pierce Butler.

Next Monday, on the 149th anniversary of the sale, a historical marker will be dedicated near the former racetrack site, to acknowledge the event that disintegrated a community and served as a turning point in the abolitionist movement in the North.

The state’s historical marker program is administered by Georgia Historical Society. Since taking over the program’s management ten years ago from the state, GHS has focused making sure the historical markers tell all of Georgia’s history, not just the more palatable episodes.

“There are plenty of Georgia’s stories that have never been told,” said Stan Deaton, Vice President for Programs and Scholarship at GHS. “We have put up a lot of markers about African American history, women in history. Some [markers] that have been deemed controversial in the past, at one time deemed inappropriate or not worthy of a marker.

“If we only focus on things that might be positive, it doesn’t tell the whole story. The point of history is to gain understanding. You can’t do this if you only look at what you did in Sunday school,” said Deaton.

The City of Savannah initiated the historical marker application process after learning about the slave sale during the development of the West Savannah Revitalization Plan, under the direction of staffer Allyne Tosca Owens.

According to Bret Bell, the city’s public information officer, national attention in 1859 was drawn to the sale by a reporter from the New York Herald, who went undercover and posed as a potential buyer of slaves, recording everything throughout the two day sale.

The sale is described, in sanitized tones, in two website library articles: America’s Library, www.americaslibrary.gov; and The African American Registry, www.aaregistry.com.

But it’s the account from the 1859 New York newspaper (reprinted on the PBS website, www.pbs.org,) that cuts to the heart of why the people who were sold, and their descendants, called the event The Weeping Time.

“None of the Butler slaves have ever been sold before, but have been on these two plantations since they were born. Here have they lived their humble lives, and loved their simple loves; here were they born, and here have many of them had children born unto them; here had their parents lived before them, and are now resting in quiet graves on the old plantations that these unhappy ones are to see no more forever; ... And who can tell how closely intertwined are a band of four hundred persons, living isolated from all the world beside, from birth to middle age? Do they not naturally become one great family, each man a brother unto each?”

The Weeping Time Historical Marker dedication is Monday, March 3, 10:30 a.m., at Augusta Avenue and Dunn Street in West Savannah. The public is invited.

Email Robin at rgunnsav@bellsouth.net

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Robin Wright Gunn

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