By Luana M. Graves Sellars
Recently, I did a quick staycation in Savannah for my birthday. It was probably my 100th time either in or through the city in my lifetime. Since childhood, I have loved historic cities for the stories that they told; as well as the uncovered stories that are yet to be discovered.
Trips to Boston, Philly, Savannah and Charleston always make my mind travel back in time to where I felt like I could hear the sound of horses pulling carriages across cobblestoned streets with candle lite lanterns guiding the path to your destination.
To me, each nook and cranny, stone and tree has a story. If they could talk, they would have such incredible stories of survival to tell, that time and history might have been forgotten.
This trip, however, unexpectedly and drastically has changed my perspective completely. So, imagine my mind blowing moment that I discovered that one of the most treasured aspects of the cities that I have enjoyed all of my life, had been quietly telling me the story behind its every foundations; of its development; its origins in being a water front port, and in the case of Savannah and Charleston, its clearly defined roll in the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade.
Suddenly, the old world charm of cobblestone streets has been replaced with the knowledge that these very stones, ballasts, were what gave weight or balance to the ships that delivered millions of enslaved people to American shores.
As I walk on each stone, now they have meaning. No longer can I casually pass them by, t only am I standing on the painful experiences of my ancestors, but they force me to think about their strength and determination to survive.
Ships from the 1800s could not be balanced with the weight of hundreds of people in the belly of the ship. They would have been top heavy and unable to stay afloat if not for the additional pounds provided by the stones that were placed in the belly of the ship to balance its cargo.
Once the ship docked, the enslaved were disembarked along with the excess stones, and based upon the needs of the replacement cargo, the extra stones were left piled along the riverfront.
The extraordinary amount of discarded ballasts exemplifies, for me, the magnitude of the slave trade, as well as the 1000s of ships that left behind enough stones to pave the waterfront streets of Savannah and Charleston.
Charleston was the largest slave port in the US, with over 40% of the enslaved people coming through its port at Gadsden Wharf. Downtown the Slave Mart and house after house of rectangular openings at street level, which were used for underground air vents, are only a few of the tangible elements of the slave trade that are left behind.
In Savannah, ship manifests recorded 4,479 dockings of enslaved people. Stone by stone, the streets surrounding the waterfront speak to the early commerce and development of the Southern cities; yet they also demonstrate the pains of enslaved people thrust upon a growing nation.
In the past, the enslaved were faceless property. Yet, the very essence of their being, and the strength of their spirit lives on. I may have casually ignored the magnitude of what I have seen in the past, but today I feel as if each stone was laid as a breadcrumb trail to remind all of us about the story of their existence.
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