Savannah storyteller and grassroots activist Patt Gunn, co-founder of the Susie King Taylor Center for Jubilee and co-chair of the Coalition to Rename Calhoun Square, will discuss “Susie King Taylor and the Making of Taylor Square” at Second African Baptist Church on June 20 as part of the 2024 Historic Savannah Foundation Lecture Series. This event is free and open to the public.
Savannah storyteller and grassroots activist Patt Gunn, co-founder of the Susie King Taylor Center for Jubilee and co-chair of the Coalition to Rename Calhoun Square, will discuss “Susie King Taylor and the Making of Taylor Square” at Second African Baptist Church on June 20 as part of the 2024 Historic Savannah Foundation Lecture Series. This event is free and open to the public.

Historic Savannah Foundation to host lecture by storyteller Patt Gunn on Susie King Taylor and the making of Taylor Square

The lecture will trace the arc of the Taylor Square renaming initiative, provide historical context on similar efforts

Master storyteller and Gullah Geechee daughter of Savannah, Patt Gunn, or Sistah Patt as she’s affectionately known, will soon present a free lecture with the Historic Savannah Foundation about Civil War-era educator and nurse Susie King Taylor and the community-wide effort to rename Calhoun Square in her honor.

Taking place the day after Juneteenth, this lecture will inform attendees about one of most prominent Black women leaders in Savannah’s history. Taylor was born into slavery in 1848 in Liberty County and eventually relocated to Savannah to live with her grandmother, where she began attending clandestine schools and excelled academically to the point of surpassing her teachers. During the onset of the Civil War, Taylor escaped on a federal boat and became free at the age of 14. She was lauded by the ship’s commander for her literacy, and he arranged for her to teach at a school on St. Simon’s Island, becoming the first Black woman to teach at a freedmen’s school in Georgia. Later on, Taylor relocated to South Carolina where she served the 1st South Carolina Volunteer Infantry Regiment as the unit’s laundress, nurse and educator, teaching the regiment of former slaves how to read and write. With the renaming of Calhoun Square, Taylor takes her rightful place cemented in history as a champion for education and an inspiring symbol of resilience and overcoming. She is the first Black person and the first woman to have one of Savannah’s squares bear her namesake.

Gunn, who is the co-founder of the Susie King Taylor Center for Jubilee, co-chaired the Coalition to Rename Calhoun Square, galvanizing the community around the renaming initiative. After more than three years of grassroots organizing, the city council voted unanimously to rename Calhoun Square—which was formerly named for the South Carolinian slaveholder John C. Calhoun—after Taylor in August of 2023.

“It was such an amazing feeling,” said Gunn. “It was a moment of high reflection. We were in City Hall and everyone . . . just felt like we all did, which we did. I reflected right away on the many people in the Civil Rights movement in Savannah who did not have access to that square. So I was reflective right away and it just gave me a lot of pride. It warmed my soul to hear that 9–0 vote unanimously.”

The square was officially rededicated on Saturday, Feb. 10. Community members from all walks of life gathered that day under the sparsely clouded sky in celebration of this historic feat.

“That day for me, sitting on the front row with pride and honor ... I saw young people and students and social justice activists and artists,” said Gunn. “It was just a rainbow of people and I thought we are a resilient community. It gave me a lot of pride to look out there and see it. I had no words. I could just look out there and say, ‘well done, Savannah. Well done.'”

The road to this accomplishment was long and not without obstacles, but with consistency and steadfastness, the local community came together to make this change.

“The coalition, the heroes and sheroes ... neighbors around the square, retired folks, artists, social activists, individual students, parents, It was just a wonderful effort of Kwanzaa principles. It was unity. It was faith. It was corporate economics. It was all the principles. They all came together to get this done.”

The coalition employed a tried and true methodology in their effort, which has proved effective from the Civil Rights era into modernity: agitate, educate, organize.

“We agitated the citizens of Savannah. We educated the leadership, and then we organized people around Susie King Taylor as the right person to be placed on that square,” said Gunn. “It’s been done by many others, but that is the methodology that our coalition used.”

She added that during the time of Dr. King and the movement that continued thereafter, this same methodology was used to bring about desegregation in the South.

“What did they do to desegregate the South? They agitated the nation that there’s a problem. Then they educated and organized people, and they came to the South and desegregated the nation. That’s the methodology that was used. Yes, I was there. And it’s proven effective. I think it can be used over and over again, I really do,” said Gunn.

During her lecture with the Historic Savannah Foundation, Gunn will illuminate this methodology and its application to the nearly four-year process of renaming Calhoun Square. By doing so, she will inform audience members about how to apply that same methodology to bring about positive change in their communities.

“I’m looking forward to the lecture on the process of how we created Taylor Square. I want to do an actual step-by-step of how we created it—from the beginning concept, to gathering the people, to interacting with the city. I want to share with people that it was a civic engagement process, and I just want to share the steps to that and encourage them that if they have a project they’d like to do with any public spaces, we would love to share the methodologies. It’s really a lecture about the methodologies of how to work in public spaces,” she said.

Gunn encourages the public to come out and take advantage of this unique opportunity to learn in lay terms about organizing from the ground up.

“We can take [attendees] on the journey and encourage them as citizens to become more civically engaged. That’s the whole focus of our nonprofit, Center for Jubilee, civic engagement. Don’t sit around and complain about things that you don’t like in your city. Get out there and make things happen and turn it into something positive,” she said. “We want to have them come out and hear our stories and be encouraged to become a part of the ‘We the People’ campaign. It’s our square. It’s our streets. It’s our schools. Come out and learn the methodologies ... and think of ways to engage in the public sector.”

While the square renaming has been accomplished, the Susie King Taylor Center for Jubilee is not slowing down, with plans to launch a new memorial campaign on July 1.

“Our next step is to launch a capital campaign to create a statue or a memorial on the grounds at Taylor Square. That’s our next big move, a capital campaign to create a memorial as well as annual scholarships for nurses and teachers. We want this to be a living history, continuous of Susie King Taylor’s work.”

The Center for Jubilee is in the process of creating the Taylor Square Foundation to further recognize her work, while contributing to future generations of educators and nurses. In all of these efforts, Gunn wants to convey Taylor’s important legacy and what it represents for our community today.

“There was an anti-literacy law in Savannah that was established long before she was born. It was established in 1822, and the defiance of the community to get an education. I want people to know that she was a teacher and a self-taught nurse who took care of hundreds of people, but her No. 1 focus was education.”

Patt Gunn will speak about “Susie King Taylor and the Making of Taylor Square” on Thursday, June 20, at 6 p.m. at the historic Second African Baptist Church, located at 123 Houston St. This event is a part of the 2024 Historic Savannah Foundation Lecture Series and is presented in collaboration with the Davenport House Museum. The lecture is free and open to the public. To learn more, visit myhsf.org/events/lecture-series/.

     

Chantel Britton

Chantel Britton is a compelling storyteller with an ever-growing curiosity. She's built a rewarding writing career for herself in addition to serving five years as a Public Affairs Officer in the U.S. Army Reserve. She's an NPR nerd with a deep passion for all things travel, sustainable living and adventure. She...
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