By Luana M. Graves Sellars
Savannah’s waterfront is a beautiful place, yet, if you take the time to walk slowly and look closely, remnants of its violent and cruel past are not hard to find. The River Street area of Savannah is sacred ground. So much is there to see which forces one to wonder what the enslaved who came through there might have experienced. It takes a patient and thoughtful walk around the riverfront and the majority of downtown Savannah, to see the significant amount of markings that were left behind. Unfortunately, right now, one must know what they’re looking for or at; their aren’t any markers or historical signage placed to identify Savannah’s documented role in the slave trade where tens of thousands of enslaved people came through Savannah’s port just below River Street, in an area called Lower Factors Walk.
Sandwiched between the river and Johnson Square, where over 479 slave auctions were held, along the sidewalk, there’s just an iron grill within some plants. Most people will just pass by. To those that know, it was an access point for oxygen, as well as a vent that offered the enslaved untouchable sounds of life and freedom. The iron work covers the shaft below, where a row of five limestone and brick slave pens, called the Cluskey Vaults, can be found a short distance from the waterfront. The identical type of pens can also be found in Ghana and other West African slave embarkation ports.
The slave pens, also known as slave castles, are port side areas where the enslaved were corralled once removed from a ship and held until being auctioned. When each of the 4,479 ships docked, the pens were used as a temporary 3 to 7 day stopover for storage and fattening up prior to auction. So far, enslaved people representing tribes from Liberia, Senegal, Ghana and Nigeria have been identified as having been in the pens.
Just off of East River Street, the row of four slave castles are lined with bricks that were made on plantations around the south. If you look down at the endless number of balestones and you’ll see bricks that line the street imprinted with the company names of where they were formed. In the pens, if you look closely, you can find markings that the enslaved who made the bricks, left behind. The twice baked bricks were removed from the ovens and marked with tribal identifiers, by the Ebu, as well as others while warm. The markings might have been made as a clear act of defiance or as a way to remember and or identify one of their 14 African tribes. Either way, brick after brick after brick various tribal markings can be found all over the walls.
Each pen is a different size, yet structurally, the designs are similar. In the rear near the back, is that rectangular air duct that connects to the Bay Street sidewalk above. The flooring has a very slight decline from the back to the front, most likely to allow water to run out for cleaning it or the trough for defecation that had been filled in by the city years ago.
The largest two, probably held the women, as more women were enslaved than men, because in addition to providing labor, their primary economic benefit was for breeding, as confirmed on ship manifests. On the manifests, female names were written alongside a number and code, like 20-BR7; 20 for her age and 7 for the amount of children that she could possibly deliver. One female’s value was equivalent to ultimately owning several of her offspring. Therefore, it wasn’t uncommon for women, in some cases, to arrive pregnant.
The smallest pen on the opposite end was most likely where any children were put.
Just a few steps away from the smallest one, is the Whipping Post. It’s not literally a post, but an area along the brick wall that continues holding the rusted hooks and rings that were used to chain someone to the wall. If you look closely, the bricks are permanently indented with countless whip marks from excessive lashings that are left behind.
Remnants of captivity aren’t hard to find. One thing that the Atlantic Slave Trade demonstrated was that it was founded on economics and strategic captures. The enslaved were targeted and captured because they were highly skilled. Whether they were Mende rice farmers for the Lowcountry along the sea islands, who could engineer the intricate trunks that diked the waters or Ashanti builders for Savannah that knew construction, iron work or brick making, reminders of their incredible talents are not hard to find.
Just above the pens, it’s obvious that Savannah’s business district was built by the enslaved. The Cotton Exchange Building is covered with African tribal markings. Surrounded by iron gates, the details include symbols for water, compassion and one of my favorites, the sankofa.
Two images can represent the sankofa. A bird looking backwards to take an egg off of its back or the more familiar heart shape. Today it’s a very familiar symbol, one that adorns screen doors and gates everywhere. The Sankofa is from the Akan and Fante tribes in Ghana and it literally means san – to return; ko – go; fa – to fetch or often translated from an African proverb as – it is not taboo to fetch what is at risk of being left behind.
As you look around, the iron gates are actually speaking to you in several languages, including Adrinka from the Ashanti tribe. They’re telling those who know, whether scared and just off of a ship after having survived an arduous journey, or to future generations; that they were here. Each image symbolizes a memory of Africa; the circles – freedom; the squares – compassion, the wavy lines – water, the sankofa heart – love, and the opened semi circle – hope. Building after building, tribal symbols are everywhere. All that you need to do is pause and take in your surroundings.
Savannah’s waterfront is a sacred place that needs its story told completely and accurately. Additionally, a necessary focus on preserving these historic elements is vital, before they are lost forever. Because these areas are not being protected, unfortunately, the bricks are being stolen and sold online.
Efforts to memorialize the area don’t exist either. There are no historic markers to guide you through the city, only some random federal signs. And on the water’s edge, there’s only one (labeled #2 or #3 it was such a fleeting reference, I chose not to remember) can be found along the river that mentions the slave trade.
While there, I ran into a young family who was reading the informational signs that tell of the pens being used for storage. I asked if they knew what they had stumbled upon. Of course, they didn’t. But, like all of the other tourists and cars that drive by daily, they should.
To read the other articles in the Changing Perspectives series click Part One | Part Two | Part Three
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