Black Savannah, 1788–1864


Whittington B. Johnson
978-1-55728-546-1 (paper)
July 1999


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Fourth in the University of Arkansas Press series in Black Community Studies, this examination of the black community of Savannah, Georgia, during the antebellum and the Civil War periods is a groundbreaker. It begins in 1788 with the founding of Savannah’s first black public institution, an independent church, and closes in 1864 with Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s capture of Savannah and the subsequent end to slavery.

Using a wide range of primary sources, including the little-used Southern Claims Case Files, and a vast number of secondary sources, Whittington Johnson gracefully elucidates the most important features of slave and free African-American life in this period. Johnson maintains that, unlike Charleston and New Orleans, Savannah had a comparatively small population of free blacks, containing only a slim majority of mulattoes and few large property owners, a demographic that greatly affected the contours of the black class structure. Among the most interesting groups that created Savannah’s community were “nominal slaves,” slaves in name only, who lived apart from their masters, seeking and finding their own employment.

Black Savannah focuses upon efforts of African Americans, free and slave, who worked together to establish and maintain a variety of religious, social, and cultural institutions; to carve out niches in the larger economy; and to form cohesive families. The result was an autonomous black community in a key city of the Old South.

“In the tradition of Gary Nash, Whittington B. Johnson excavates the history of an urban black community forged during the promise of the Revolution but tempered by the realities of slavery and race. With his attention to women and men, to the elasticity of racial controls as well as the strictures of race and slavery, and to the ways blacks ordered their own social and cultural space, Johnson provides a sensitive and sensible view of a people in the process of becoming African-American. More important, his layered reading of black Savannah culture and experience, from birth to burial, reminds us how much the meaning of race derived from the character of each particular place.”
—Randall M. Miller, St. Joseph’s University, Philadelphia

The Black Community Studies Series was edited by Dr. Willard Gatewood.

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