Historical Markers and African American Heritage in Savannah - Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History

Historical Markers and African American Heritage in Savannah




Editorial Introduction


Savannah, GA has a rich history and means different things to all citizens and tourists that travel to enjoy the city’s beauty. As well as being an important colonial city and beacon of the Antebellum Period, the twentieth century produced a vibrant African American culture and heritage in Savannah. The essays presented here are written by students from Dr. Michael Benjamin’s Introduction to Public History class in support of a Georgia Historical Marker designation.[1] The first essay features Savannah’s original African American burial grounds in a location that is today completely hidden from public view by one of the beautiful downtown squares and a gazebo. Public historians are frequently challenged with how to present controversial topics of our history in places where aesthetical, political, and often emotional barriers exist. When the issue of slavery is involved there can be great resistance to change in the meaning of current landmarks such as a square used for events and surrounded by historical residences. In a strictly historical sense, “Old Negro Burial Grounds” offers an argument for historical recognition that is an important part of embracing Savannah’s black heritage.  The second is on the Prince Hall Masonic Lodge on East Broad Street and highlights a location that serves as facilitator to the city’s African American leaders, women, youth, and every other organization in the community around the historic building. The Prince Hall lodge has a legacy almost as old as Savannah and as an ordinary urban landscape possesses the “power of place—the power…to nurture citizens’ public memory, to encompass shared time in the form of shared territory.”[2] The third and final essay, “The Melody Theatre,” presents the story of a building that was not only revolutionary in function, but also served to unify the black community in a difficult time. Together these essays help us memorialize the glory and the dream of Savannah’s past and continuing African American heritage.  Historical markers for these locations are the next step in protecting this history for the future.



Old Negro Burial Grounds


Candace McNeal, Austin Rahn, Liam Murphy, and Kelsey Monagham


The last square laid out in the historic district of Savannah was Whitefield Square in1853, still standing at Habersham Street and East Wayne Street today. Whitefield Square is beautiful with pristine gardens, majestic Live Oaks, and a gazebo at its center. The surrounding ward is equally beautiful with historic churches and homes that boast some of Savannah’s finest examples of Victorian architecture. Despite the beauty of the square, it resonates from a past that has remained unknown to most who visit the site: beneath Whitefield Square lies the “Old Negro Burial Grounds”. Today, there is no evidence remaining at the site to suggest that it was once a cemetery, but beneath the beautiful gardens and the Victorian homes lay the remains of an unknown number of Negro persons. To find such information, one must look beyond the square and sift through local lore, dig deep into city archives, and search through the remaining primary source documents of Savannah’s past.



Slave burial ground, photo by Austin Rahn

Several primary source documents outline the history of the burial grounds from creation to closing. An act passed by the General Assembly on April 7, 1763 stating that “two hundred feet square, on the Common, towards the five Acre lots, for the convenience of a burial ground for negroes, was directed to be laid out” is the earliest documentation confirming the existence of the Negro burial grounds. [3] Despite the burial grounds designation in 1763, a later ordinance dating July 29, 1789 suggests that the reserved land was not in use. This ordinance appropriated “a space of ground to be used as the burial place for people of colour, for preventing the bodies of people of colour from being buried on any part of the city Common or parts adjoining except within the limits of the said space of ground.”[4] According to the text of the ordinance, there was a problem with the method of burial for the African Americans in Savannah. When an African American died, the body was buried wherever there was an open space or lot. To deter this practice the General Assembly reestablished the previously said ground for Negro burials. The Council appointed surveyor Claud Thompson to lay out the burial grounds. Thompson presented a map outlining the burial locations.[5] The Negro burial ground was placed south of town, far from any existing infrastructure. Unfortunately, by 1813, it appears the burial grounds designated for African Americans had yet to be utilized. A meeting recorded in the Council minutes states that “The Bill to be entitled ‘An Ordinance for appropriating a space of ground as a burial place for persons of color’” was under review for a third time and finally passed.[6] One can assume the Negro burials grounds were operational after this point but difficulties in burial practices continued. An ordinance dated 1839 expressed a constant concern with  African American burials taking place outside of the designated cemeteries. [7]


In addition to Thompson’s surveyor map, several other maps of the City of Savannah show the designated area for the said burial grounds.  The earliest map documenting the Negro burial ground dates April 9, 1818.[8] In conjunction with previously mentioned ordinances, the burial ground is located within the city Common, next to the Five Acre lot.  The 1818 map clearly draws an outline of the location and is labeled “Negro Ground.” The next map dating 1820 is a survey map suggesting the plans for a possible extension of the city of Savannah.  It is a proposal for the future layout of additional squares, one eventually becoming Whitefield Square. The map does not show a designated location of the Negro burials, however, the map does show the early stages of expansion that led up to the opening of Laurel Grove South and the excavation of the African Americans buried at the site.[9] Lastly, a map dated 1840 details the expansion of Savannah but retains the location of the Negro burial grounds.[10] From the data collected from the city ordinances along with the maps designating the burial site, it can be determined that the Negro Burial Grounds were in use from approximately 1813 to 1853, the year of closing of the grounds.


The City Council decreed a plan for relocation and closing of the Negro burial site in 1852. The recently purchased Springfield Plantation became the new location of both the Old Colonial Cemetery and the Old Negro Burial Grounds. “An Oglethorpe Colonist,” Joseph Stiles, originally owned Springfield Plantation, which consisted of “five hundred acres, and is a narrow belt of low land three hundred yards wide”[11] and was used as a rice plantation up until 1820.[12] By 1830, the plantation had become a public nuisance due to drainage problems from the Ogeechee Canal. The City of Savannah purchased the Plantation in 1850 form the Heirs of Joseph Stiles.[13] In 1852 it was chosen to be the new location of the all-white cemetery, Laurel Grove, and the “colored” peoples’ cemetery, Laurel Grove South. Laurel Grove was dedicated on November 10, 1852.[14] City Council Minutes from 1852 established the closing date of the Old Colonial Cemetery and the Negro Burial Grounds July 1, 1853. Excavations of the bodies at the Old Negro Burial Grounds began sometime in 1852.


Slave burial ground, photo by Austin Rahn

Two excavations of notable influence were that of Reverend Andrew Bryan and Reverend Henry Cunningham. Andrew Bryan established and pastored the First Color Church, later renamed First African Baptist Church, in 1788. Bryan and his congregation suffered greatly in this period.  Whites frequently interrupted their services and whippings and beatings increased among the blacks in the congregation. By refusing to stop his work as a pastor, Bryan suffered imprisonment twice. Andrew Bryan died in 1812 at the age of seventy-five. Bryan was buried in the Old Negro Burial Grounds, perhaps among several members of his own congregation.[15] Henry Cunningham was a free African American, a slaveholder, entrepreneur, and pastor of the Second African Baptist Church. He attended Andrew Bryan’s First Colored Church between the years 1788 and 1789 and became a deacon. By 1802, the First Colored Church had an overwhelming membership of eight-hundred and fifty persons. Because of its large membership, they constructed two additional colored churches and ordained two additional pastors. Unfortunately, Bryan did not ordain Cunningham as an additional pastor. Cunningham left First Colored Church and joined Reverend Henry Holcombe’s white Savannah Baptist Church. Holcombe’s favor of Cunningham took precedence over Bryan’s choice for the additional pastors resulting in Cunningham’s ordination as pastor of the Second Colored Church, later renamed Second African Baptist, on January 1, 1803. Henry Cunningham died on March 29, 1842 and like Andrew Bryan, his initial burial was in the Old Negro Burial Grounds.[16] In 1852, the City of Savannah exhumed the bodies of Andrew Bryan and Henry Cunningham from the Old Negro Burial Grounds and relocated to Laurel Grove South.


In addition to Bryan and Cunningham, the City of Savannah exhumed several other bodies as well. Unfortunately, for some, the relocation consisted only of tombstones and headstones to Laurel Grove South. Close inspection of the dates etched on the tombstones at Laurel Grove South prove their relocation, for many date the year of death prior to the opening of the new cemetery. Today the roots of the majestic Oaks that ornament Whitefield Square twist and entangle with the remains of countless free and enslaved African Americans.



Prince Hall Masonic Lodge


Francis Tannie Arnsdorff, Sherrie Bell, Paul Chapman, Leslie Cobb, and Thomas Drane


The Reverend J. M. Simms introduced Prince Hall Freemasonry to Savannah, Georgia on February 4, 1866.[17] Beginning a relationship that continued throughout the years, the Grand Lodge in England, in 1784, recognized the African-American lodge in Massachusetts. Simms organized the Eureka Lodge No. 1 and Hilton Lodge No. 2 on a charter from the Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Massachusetts.[18] The current Prince Hall Lodge in Savannah is located at 602 E. Broad St. A large part of its mission is to improve the community by training its members to be civically engaged leaders. Historically, the lodge has succeeded in fulfilling this mission. Evidenced by the legacies of prominent members such as Robert W. Gadsden, Sol C. Johnson, and Curtis V. Cooper, the Prince Hall Lodge in Savannah play a central role in the African American Community and it serves a facilitator role by bringing likeminded, civically engaged African Americans together.[19]


Prince Hall, photo by Sherrie Bell

The lodge had a significant influence in the Savannah area through the work of member Robert W. Gadsden. As a school principal, he was a "respected black educator who made significant contributions to schooling in Savannah's Jim Crow days."[20] Gadsden, described as a "local heavy-weight", was a driving force behind the establishment of the West Broad Street YMCA, intended to help serve African-American soldiers returning home from World War II.[21] Gadsden Elementary School, in Savannah, bears his name to honor Gadsden's contributions to the community.  A Savannah high school memorializes Sol. C. Johnson also by bearing his name.[22]  Johnson was the owner and editor of the Savannah Tribune, an African-American newspaper, from 1909 to 1954.[23] During his time as editor, the Savannah Tribune served the South Georgia and North Florida area, covering the injustices of the Jim Crow era.[24] Curtis V. Cooper’s life represents the hard work the Prince Hall Lodge put into bettering the lives of the residents of Savannah. Cooper was an aspiring physician, who, being unable to attend medical school due to a lack of funds, turned his attention to making health care affordable to all.[25] In 1972, he secured funds for the establishment of a comprehensive health center for the city's indigent and served as its executive director. Cooper served in multiple health-care related positions, both the local and state level, including sitting on the board of Memorial Medical Center.[26]  Upon his passing, the Georgia House of Representatives passed a resolution that memorialized his work.[27] Today, the clinic he started bears his name as a testament to his legacy.[28]  Gadsden, Johnson, and Cooper are only three among the unknowable number of Prince Hall Masons to educate, protect, and serve the black community in Savannah.


Mr. Willie V. Coleman, a lifelong and retired employee of Savannah Electric Company, joined the Prince Hall Lodge in 1937.[29]  His legacy is less public than the men previously mentioned, but within the brotherhood, Mr. Coleman is known as their “unofficial historian.”[30]  Mr. Coleman says that he was enticed by a co-worker at Savannah Electric Co. that told him some but he had to join to hear the rest and that there was a religious component involved in the brotherhood as well.[31]  A short and informal, but extremely enjoyable conversation with Mr. Coleman revealed two things about the Prince Hall members in Savannah: first and most importantly, there is only so much they can talk about; second, the Lodge is a brotherhood looking out for the best interest of the community.[32]  Their members are civically engaged in their free time and most spend their working hours improving the city through civic positions.  Moreover, the lodge on East Broad Street serves as a meeting place for multiple church youth groups and other organizations.  The Knights Pythagoras program serves the community by taking in youth between the ages of five and eighteen and training them in the Masonic knowledge, in other words creating civically engaged individuals and educating young African American men.


The Prince Hall Lodge in Savannah has made a large and positive impact in Savannah. Though it may not seem that the Lodge has been a primary agent of change, their focus has been on training and equipping its members as opposed to standing on the front lines. Prince Hall trains and attracts civically engaged members multiplying the positive effects of black leaders in Savannah. In this manner the Prince Hall Lodge on East Broad Street in Savannah is worthy of official recognition with a historical marker.



The Melody Theatre: The largest and Finest Black Theatre


Katherine Soule, Anna Reiter and Molly Vega


The Melody Theatre, Savannah’s first fully air conditioned theatre for African Americans was opened in March 1946. Its first ads simply dubbed the new theatre “Savannah's Largest and Finest.” [33] Located at East Broad and Hall Street, the Melody could seat up to nine hundred and fifty people and had a complete soda shoppe in which attendees could enjoy refreshments and a pleasurable social atmosphere. It was “dedicated to the appreciation and enjoyment of Savannah's entire colored population.” [34]


Situated in a prominent African-American neighborhood, the Melody serviced both the business community and the families who lived in the area and became the most successful theatre. Yet very soon, the Melody faced competition from another newly opened theatre, the East Side Theatre, which was also large and fully air conditioned. [35] To outshine the competitor, the Melody began to host talent contests that were a roaring success within the community, offering cash prizes. People from all over the city came to compete before audiences in hopes of being discovered.


However, the Melody's strategy was quickly copied by the East Side, which became even more popular in late 1946. The Melody refused to give up without a fight and decided to host a swing parade party in hopes to regain popularity among the community. It was successful and put the Melody on top once more. The owners also decided to start writing “Melody Notes” in the newspaper to keep the community updated on upcoming events. Placed in the society section, these notes offered a more personal feel than simply reading an advertisement. The section was also used to make apologies for show delays and to remind the community that they got the show they paid for or got their money back. Soon the Melody was offering contests again and drawing in more people than ever before. It truly was “Savannah's Largest and Finest.” [36] and set the course for new era of entertainment in the Savannah area.


The Melody Theatre offered African Americans a new source of entertainment during some very troubling times. World War II had come to an end, but many African American soldiers lost their lives. Those left behind struggled to rebuild at the height of Jim Crow. Theatres offered a way for people to escape from the world. There was also the appeal of new entertainment, especially to the younger crowd. Theatres in those days were a safe haven for young African American children and teenagers. On Saturdays they showed double and even triple shows that could last most of the day, much to the enjoyment of the young folk. The adults found midnight shows thrilling as they were often packed despite their late time. The Melody in particular would stay open until the wee hours of the morning when they closed and then reopened again around ten or eleven o'clock. As the hot and humid Georgia summer hit its peak, the theatre's air conditioned environment undoubtedly attracted a large population of African Americans in the city.


After great success in the following several years, the Melody Theatre was closed in 1952 and became the home of St. James AME Church, where they still use many of the theatre's original pieces and even hold concerts.[37] The main reason this theatre and its kind shut down was because of the Civil Rights Movement. With desegregation on the rise, white or colored theatres were no longer needed. Nonetheless, these theatres were a testament to Savannah's rich African American heritage even after their doors closed for good.



About the authors

All the authors are varying majors at Armstrong and students of Dr. Michael Benjamin’s Introduction to Public History class.


Recommended citation

Candace McNeal, et al., “Historical Markers and African American Heritage in Savannah,” Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History 3, no. 2 (April 2013).




[2]Dolores Hayden, The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1995), 9.

[3] Adelaide Wilson and Georgia Weymouth, Historic and Picturesque Savannah (Boston: Rockwell and Churchill Press, 1889), 90.

[4] Savannah General Assembly, Cemetry: An Ordinance, Record of City Council Minutes (Savannah, 1789), 243.

[5] Savannah General Assembly, Map of Proposed Negro Burial Ground Location, Record of City Council Minutes (Savannah, 1789), np.

[6] Savannah General Assembly, Record of City Council Minutes (Savannah, 1813), 68.

[7] Record of City Council Minutes, np.

[8] Register of Deaths in Savannah, Georgia, vol. 3 (August 1818).

[9] City of Savannah Live Oak Public Library: Kaye Kole Genealogy and Local History Room, Source unknown.

[10] Register of Deaths in Savannah, Georgia, vol. 4 (1840).

[11] “Report of the State Board of Health of the Late Epidemic of Yellow Fever in the State of Georgia,” Annual Report of the Board of Health of the State of Georgia 1876 (Atlanta: 1877), 95.

[12] F.D. Lee and J. L. Agnew, Historical Record of the City of Savannah (Savannah: J.H. Estill, Morning New Steam-Power Press, 1869), 131.

[13] James Johnson Waring, The Epidemic at Savannah, 1876. Its Causes-The Measures of Prevention, Adopted by the Municipality Curing the Administration of Hon. J. P. Wheaton, Mayor (Savannah: Morning News Steam Printing House, 1879), 16.

[14] John Walker Guss, Savannah’s Laurel Grove Cemetery (Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2004), 10–12.

[15] Davis, 123–127.

[16] Owens, 1–12.

[17] Maurice Wallace, "Are We Men?:  Prince Hall, Martin Delany, and the Masculine Ideal in  in Black Freemasonry, 1775–1865," American Literary History 9, no. 3 (Autumn 1997): 397.

[18] Ibid, 397. 

[19] Larry Jackson, interview by authors, Savannah, GA, November 11, 2012.

[20] Editorial: Judging Eugene Gadsden, Savannah Morning News, Aug. 11, 2000. http://savannahnow.com/stories/081100/OPEDone.shtml (accessed November 22, 2012).

[21] West Broad Street YMCA Fights to Preserve History, Savannah Morning News, February 19, 2011  http://savannahnow.com/news/2011-02-19/west-broad-street-ymca-fights-preserve-history#.UK5wve9hemE (accessed November 22, 2012).

[22] School Facts, Savannah Morning News, August 3, 2003 http://savannahnow.com/stories/080303/LOCschooltidbits.shtml (accessed November 22, 2012).

[23] The New Georgia Encyclopedia, "Savannah Tribune,"  http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/nge/Article.jsp?id=h-285 (accessed November 22, 2012).

[24] Ibid.

[25] Georgia House of Representatives, “House Resolution 806,”  http://www1.legis.ga.gov/legis/1999_00/fulltext/hr806.htm (accessed November 22, 2012).

[26] Georgia House of Representatives, “House Resolution 806,”  http://www1.legis.ga.gov/legis/1999_00/fulltext/hr806.htm (accessed November 22, 2012).

[27] Ibid.

[28] Chatham Safety Net Planning Council, "Curtis V. Cooper Primary Health Care," http://www.chathamsafetynet.org/curtis-v-cooper-health-center/index.htm (accessed November 22, 2012).

[29] Willie V. Coleman, interview by authors, Savannah, GA, November 27, 2012.

[30] Larry Jackson, interview by authors, Savannah, GA, November 11, 2012.

[31] Willie V. Coleman, interview by authors, Savannah, GA, November 27, 2012.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Solomon Johnson, “Coming Soon,” Savannah Tribune, March 15, 1946.

[34] Ibid., “Your Melody Theatre Is Now Open,” Savannah Tribune, March 21, 1946.

[35] Smith, Eric Ledell Smith,  African American Theatre Buildings (McFarland & Company, Inc., 2003). 71.

[36] Solomon Johnson, “Coming Soon,” Savannah Tribune, March 15, 1946.

[37] Ann Stifter, “Episcopal Church Celebrates Founding of Their Denomination,” http://savannahnow.com/stories/021701/LOCame.shtml (Accessed November 1 2012).

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