African-American Heritage Tour, Savannah

African-American Heritage Tour (Self Guided), Savannah

The history of America has many themes, but the theme of African American history that has touched many the most is the theme of resilience. Indeed, African Americans' enduring strength and resilience in the face of adversity have been the subjects of many songs, books, and movies in recent years. Savannah, Georgia, whose African-American population makes up about 60 percent of total residents, is integral to a complete understanding of the experience of African Americans in the South, including the great heritage they left in its culture, politics, and art.

One of the places dedicated to preserving African-American history in Savannah is the restored, Victorian-era King-Tisdell Cottage. Another historic home, the Owens-Thomas House, offers a glimpse into the lives of wealthy locals and the enslaved African Americans who worked in the household and lived in the adjacent Slave Quarters.

Following the emancipation of slaves, one of the first schools for African Americans in the city was the Beach Institute opened in 1867. The Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum, named after a prominent local civil rights leader, showcases the struggle of African Americans during the Civil Rights Movement.

There are also several monuments commemorating notable individuals and historical events that shaped the African-American community, such as the African American Monument in Rousakis Plaza on River Street and the Haitian Memorial Monument situated in Franklin Square.

"We may have all come on different ships, but we're in the same boat now," Martin Luther King Jr. said once, emphasizing the interconnectedness of all people in the United States, regardless of their racial and ethnic backgrounds. If you seek more insight into the African-American experience for a deeper understanding of Savannah's history and culture, take this self-guided walking tour.
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African-American Heritage Tour Map

Guide Name: African-American Heritage Tour
Guide Location: USA » Savannah (See other walking tours in Savannah)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 9
Tour Duration: 2 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 4.4 Km or 2.7 Miles
Author: hollyg
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • The King-Tisdell Cottage
  • The Beach Institute
  • Owens-Thomas House and Slave Quarters
  • African American Monument
  • Haitian Memorial Monument
  • First African Baptist Church
  • First Bryan Baptist Church
  • Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum
  • The Diaspora Marketplace
The King-Tisdell Cottage

1) The King-Tisdell Cottage

The King-Tisdell Cottage is owned and operated by the King-Tisdell Cottage Foundation. The Cottage serves as an African-American heritage and history museum named after its owners, Eugene and Sarah King, and Sarah King's second husband, Robert Tisdell.

The building is furnished in a style typical of a black residence in the 1890s. The cottage was originally built in another area in 1896 by W.W. Aimar, and features gingerbread-style adornment on the porch in a distinctive wheel and spindle pattern. It was threatened by demolition in 1970, but the City of Savannah and Historic Savannah Foundation managed to save the historic building, move it to its current location, and re-construct it.

The museum's exhibits demonstrate the history of Savannah and the Sea Islands, emphasizing the many ways that African-Americans have contributed to the area's history. One of the exhibits is particularly noteworthy- an original bill of sale for slaves, handwritten in Arabic by slaves on a plantation. Outside, the Cottage features the fountain “Free to Fly,” by famous sculptor Ivan Bailey, and a gas light dedicated to key civic leader Sadie Steele.
The Beach Institute

2) The Beach Institute

The Beach Institute was originally constructed in 1867 by the Freedmen's Bureau for the purpose of educating newly freed former slaves. It was named for the editor of The Scientific American, Alfred S. Beach, who was a major donor of the funds used to purchase the plot the Institute sits on.

Initially, the Institute has six hundred students, nine (primarily white) female teachers, and one male principal. The Beach Institute served as a school for freed slaves until 1875, when it was turned over to the Savannah Board of Education and became a free public school for African-American children. When other schools in the area opened and the Beach Institute was no longer needed, it was closed in 1919. Since then, it has been re-opened as an African-American cultural center and museum.

Works from Savannah-area African-American artists are on permanent display at the Beach Institute, including wood carvings from celebrated folk artists Ulysses Davis. Davis was a barber and self-taught sculptor, who made many of the tools he used to carve his artwork. Originally, his carvings were on display around the walls of his barber shop. Today, they're viewed by visitors from all over.
Owens-Thomas House and Slave Quarters

3) Owens-Thomas House and Slave Quarters (must see)

The historic Owens–Thomas House in Savannah, Georgia is one of the finest examples of English Regency architecture in the United States.

The building was completed in 1819 to a design by William Jay, an English architect. His plan was to create a house aesthetically compatible to Bath, England, which is evident in the use of the Bath stone as well as in the sophisticated architectural detail that was meant to add a gentrifying physical ornament to the then-newly emerging Southern port of Savannah. The structure is notable for its early cast-iron side veranda with elaborate acanthus scroll supports on which the Marquis de Lafayette addressed the citizens of Savannah on his visit in 1825.

The house was originally named for its first owner, Richard Richardson, whose family had earned fortune as cotton merchants and bankers. In 1830, the mansion was purchased by the local attorney and politician, George Welshman Owens, and remained in his family for several decades until Owens' granddaughter, Margaret Thomas, bequeathed it to the Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences, in 1951.

In 1976, the house was designated a National Historic Landmark. Complete with the Slave Quarters, which were uncovered and restored during renovations in the 1990s, the property is now a museum. Its collection contains furnishings and decorative arts from the English Regency period, including possessions of the Owens family dating from 1790 to 1840. Among other exhibits here are English Georgian and American Federal period furniture, early Savannah textiles, silver, Chinese Export porcelain, and 18th- and 19th-century art.

The museum's highlight, though, is the carriage house that once functioned as slave quarters – one of the earliest in existence and best preserved in the American South. Previously inhabited by servants like the nanny, cook, butler and other enslaved workers, the place features slave artifacts of the period.

Although architecturally insignificant, the Slave Quarters is culturally and historically important as the showcase of the African slaves' attempt to maintain their ethnic heritage. The ceiling of the building is painted haint blue, which was customarily used in Gullah culture to deter ghosts or other malevolent spirits.

In the courtyard you can see a small parterre garden designed in 1820 English-American style.

The place is open Sunday through Monday from 12–5pm; and Tuesday through Saturday from 10am–5pm.

Museum tours go off every 15 minutes – so try to go with a smaller group!
You can also get a pass to see the Jepson Art Center and the Telfair Museum of Art for a single price of $20 in the space of one week.
African American Monument

4) African American Monument

The African-American Families Monument on River Street in Savannah serves as a tribute to the city's African-American heritage and highlights the often-overlooked history of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.

This monument, made of bronze and granite, portrays a family of four coming together in embrace following their emancipation. They face the Savannah River and the western coast of Africa, where the slaves' harrowing journey began. Inscribed with a poignant quote, this monument, albeit controversial, was crafted by Dorothy Radford Spradley, a professor at the Savannah College of Art and Design. It not only acknowledges the significant contributions made by African Americans but also symbolizes their fresh start in the Americas.

In January 2001, the city council approved the project but postponed a decision regarding a quote by Maya Angelou that was meant to be displayed on the monument's base. The proposed quote contained passages like, "We lay back to belly in the holds of the slave ships in each others’ excrement and urine together, sometimes died together, and our lifeless bodies were thrown overboard together." At the time, this quote was deemed too powerful, particularly due to the monument's planned location along the popular Savannah River promenade, a major tourist attraction in the city. A year later, an altered version of the inscription, which read, "Today, we are standing up together, with faith and even some joy," received unanimous approval from the city council.

The monument was formally dedicated in 2002. In July 2019, a plaque was added to its base, commemorating the efforts of Abigail Jordan, an African American activist, who played a pivotal role in bringing the monument to fruition.
Haitian Memorial Monument

5) Haitian Memorial Monument

During the Revolutionary War, America and France united against the British. When the British occupied Savannah, Georgia, in 1779, the allied America and France launched an attack to take the city back.

A key part of the forces that fought in this attack were Haitians of African descent. After the unsuccessful attack was concluded, many of these soldiers were sent off to fight other battles. Not many returned, and those who did often didn't see their homes until years later. The soldiers who returned became instrumental in winning Haiti's independence.

Stories of the contribution of these Haitian soldiers to American independence isn't encountered very frequently in history books, but that doesn't make it any less significant. The unit of Haitian soldiers who fought in the American Revolution was “Les Chasseurs Volontaires de Saint Domingue” serving under Charles Henri d'Estaing, and was the largest unit of soldiers of African descent. All of the members were free men who volunteered to fight the British.

The Haitian Memorial Monument was sculpted by James Mastin. One of the figures, a drummer, is a sculpt of Henri Christophe. He was a key figure in the fight for Haitian independence, serving as commander of the Haitian army. After the war was won, he became the King of the newly-independent Haiti.
First African Baptist Church

6) First African Baptist Church (must see)

The First Colored Church of Savannah (renamed the First African Baptist Church in 1882) is the oldest continuously active African-American congregation in North America. It was formed in 1778 by George Liele, the first black man to be ordained by Baptists to preach in Georgia.

The present church was built by members of the congregation, among whom there were many slaves who, after laboring all day in the fields, would make bricks, lay mortar, and carve pews for the church (that are still in use even today!).

During the turbulent years of the Civil War, this temple was a haven for runaway slaves. The fugitives hid in a four-foot high space between the basement and foundation below, with 'air holes' still visible in the basement floor – in lack of better knowledge, some visitors today erroneously assume these holes to be part of an artistic design. Speaking of the design, worthy of note here are the beautiful stained glass windows depicting Liele and other early church leaders, installed in 1885.

During the 1960s, the First African Baptist Church of Savannah served as a base for the Civil Rights movement. Today, it houses a museum containing archives and memorabilia dated from the 18th century.

Those interested in history in general and that of Savannah in particular, should consider taking a guided tour of the church. The tour takes you through the main temple, upstairs, and in the basement where you can learn about the role of the Underground Railroad.

Guided tours are offered Tuesday through Saturday at 11am, 2pm, and 4pm; and on Sunday at 1pm.
First Bryan Baptist Church

7) First Bryan Baptist Church

First Bryan Baptist Church has the distinction of being the oldest continually functioning Baptist church for African-Americans. It is based on a congregation that started in 1784, by Andrew Bryan, a member of George Leile's congregation.

The building was designed by John B. Hogg, and built between 1873-1888 on the site of the original church. It features stained glass windows that depict the church's founding members, including its first pastor, Andrew Bryan. Bryan was a Savannah slave who first organized the church in 1788. Later, in 1793, Bryan purchased both his freedom and the site of the church (formerly part of a Yamacraw Indian village) for thirty pounds. Two years after that, the first church building was built. In 1873, the first one was razed to make room for Hogg's design.

Bryan had a difficult time being a preacher. Before the church was built, he had to keep his congregation on the move. Many whites at the time viewed any gathering of slaves as a possible uprising, so Bryan was frequently imprisoned, and even beaten to punish him for preaching. Despite this, Bryan built his church and continued preaching until his death. Today, the First Bryan Baptist Church continues to serve the community as a place of worship for Savannah's Baptists.
Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum

8) Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum

Savannah, Georgia, is an area with a rich and fascinating history in the civil rights movement. This museum is named after Dr. Ralph Mark Gilbert, a major figure in Georgia's civil rights history, and pastor of the First African Baptist Church. In the year 1942, Gilbert organized Savannah's branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and has been referred to as the “father of Savannah's modern day Civil Rights Movement.”

The museum itself was built in 1914, and once served as the largest bank for African-Americans in its county, back when segregation governed virtually every public and private place in the deep South. After being a bank, it became the headquarters for Savannah's branch of the NAACP. Today, the museum houses historic photographs, art, and archives relating to Georgia's civil rights history. The first floor is created to be a replica of the luncheon in Levy's Department Store, a segregated lunch counter where one of the most famous sit-ins of the civil rights era occurred. In addition to the museum, the building also houses lecture halls, classrooms, and a library of African-American and civil rights books.

Consider taking the guided as it gives better insight in less time than trying to read through everything on your own.
Image Courtesy of Katie Mahon.
The Diaspora Marketplace

9) The Diaspora Marketplace

The Diaspora Marketplace in Savannah specializes in a wide array of products from the African Diaspora. The marketplace is renowned for its unique collection of items that embody the timeless beauty and artistic excellence of African culture. Visitors to the Diaspora Marketplace can explore an impressive array of sculptures, including beautifully detailed carvings crafted from wood, brass, and bronze. These exquisite pieces represent various African regions and include handcrafted warrior statues, face masks, and figurines.

The marketplace also offers a chance to experience the melodic heritage of Africa through traditional instruments. These instruments allow individuals to recreate the historic sounds of African music. Furthermore, the marketplace features handcrafted baskets, perfect for holding keepsakes and favorite items, and a selection of traditional African clothing. This clothing is noted for its universal appeal and flattering designs for all figure types.

The Diaspora Marketplace is more than just a store; it is a testament to the passion and vision of its founders, and two brothers, including Richard Shinhoster. Their journey began over 22 years ago, following Richard's first trip to Ghana in 1994. Struck by the art and intricate crafts he discovered in Ghana, Richard was inspired to share these treasures with others. He began by bringing pieces back in a suitcase to show relatives and friends, who were equally captivated by the art.

Over the years, the Shinhoster brothers have made numerous trips to Africa, forming lasting relationships with local artisans in various villages. By purchasing directly from these artisans, the Diaspora Marketplace not only supports the village communities but also ensures the authenticity and originality of the artwork. This direct sourcing approach allows the marketplace to offer unique and original pieces to its customers in Savannah and across the country.

Walking Tours in Savannah, Georgia

Create Your Own Walk in Savannah

Create Your Own Walk in Savannah

Creating your own self-guided walk in Savannah is easy and fun. Choose the city attractions that you want to see and a walk route map will be created just for you. You can even set your hotel as the start point of the walk.
River Street Sightseeing and Shopping

River Street Sightseeing and Shopping

The story of Savannah's River Street begins in 1733 with General James Edward Oglethorpe's landing on the bank of the Savannah River and founding the British colony of Georgia. Today, the cobble-stoned River Street caters to a variety of interests, combining the rustic beauty of the past with the energy of the present.

The half-mile-long promenade is one of the city's major...  view more

Tour Duration: 1 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 0.7 Km or 0.4 Miles
Savannah's Historical Churches

Savannah's Historical Churches

The conspicuous churches of various styles and denominations – Catholic, Baptist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Unitarian, and Methodist – dot the cityscape of Savannah, Georgia, in abundance. With their spires reaching high, as if attempting to touch heaven, these churches stand like sacred sentinels, guarding the city's spiritual heritage and illuminating its architectural grandeur.

The...  view more

Tour Duration: 2 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 2.6 Km or 1.6 Miles
Historical Houses Walking Tour

Historical Houses Walking Tour

Savannah, Georgia breathes history. You can feel it in the cobblestone alleyways and quaint squares dotting the city. An enchanting walk through the heart of Savannah's Historic District (one of the most carefully preserved in the United States) highlights an array of beautiful homes.

Saved by the forward-thinking residents from being bulldozed in the 1960s, these gorgeous structures (with...  view more

Tour Duration: 2 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 3.7 Km or 2.3 Miles
Savannah Introduction Walking Tour

Savannah Introduction Walking Tour

Savannah may not be the whole of Sweet Georgia, but no Georgia is complete without Savannah, that's for sure.

This coastal city is named after the river upon which it stands, whose name is likely to be the variant pronunciation of “Shawnee”, the Native American tribe which inhabited the area in the 1680s. Alternatively, it could have derived from the Spanish “sabana”, referring to...  view more

Tour Duration: 2 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 3.7 Km or 2.3 Miles