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Savannah Strayed

What do you think of when someone mentions Georgia? If you're like me, what comes to mind is Atlanta, peaches, pecans, swamps, alligators, humidity, Southern debutantes with large dresses and larger hair, and America's biggest shame. What never comes to mind is utopia. So when I visited Wormsloe Estate and learned that a utopia is precisely what the founders of Savannah had in mind, I was surprised and fascinated. 

The city was planned by James Oglethorpe when he was still in England. It was designed around 24 public squares (a style very much in vogue in England at the time) and to be governed by a board of trustees. All settlers who came to Savannah with Oglethorpe were given 50 acres of land that they were required to work themselves. Lawyers, liquor, Catholics, and the owning of slaves were outlawed. The settlers had a good relationship with the indigenous Yamacraw people.

But the liquor ban didn't extend to a ban on beer and alcohol, and the English city folk didn't take well to the climate and the hard work. They soon started agitating for legalized slavery to be able to compete with other colonies. And so...

By 1750, “slavery arrived with a vengeance.” Between 1761 and 1771, some 10,000 slaves were sold in the markets near the wharfs, where boats loaded with suffering human cargo would arrive from the Caribbean and Africa. The first slaves worked rice plantations and then later cotton fields. By 1810, some 44 percent of the workforce was enslaved. In 1860, the population of the city was 22,000, with some 17,000 enslaved people and 700 free blacks, many of whom owned slaves themselves. (Jared Green)

This is what I think of when I think of the south and while we've always known about the brutal and sad history of south, it's even worse when you think about what Savannah was intended to be. How different things could have been. 

Today's Savannah is full of culture and life and historical interest. Of particular interest are the historical houses houses that surround the squares. The most famous is probably the Mercer Williams house, which you will recognize from that book everyone reads before coming to Savannah. There's also Flannery O'Conner's childhood home and many others. I was happy to find in the Owens-Thomas House & Slave Quarters proper recognition of the enslaved people who lived there. That they even put "Slave Quarters" in the official name is meaningful.

There is tons of art in the city, both in museums like the Jepson and Telfair, as well as in the many galleries and spaces owned by the Savannah College of Art and Design. Special exhibitions highlight the breadth of experiences in the history of this area and the effect history has had on people's lives. There's live music from every night of the week and free educational lectures and events at bookstores and other places. And just outside town, is the Pinpoint Heritage Museum, a tribute to the vibrant Gullah/Geechee community founded in 1890 by freed slaves. While it may not be a utopia, Savannah can be a place of enlightenment and celebration. 

musicians on a stage

woman holding a shopping bag in front of a bookstore

lighthouse with scaffolding in the ocean