Savannah sets the standard for addressing ugly history of slavery, Civil War

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This is an op-ed by Barry D. Wood, a writer and economics journalist based in Washington, DC.  

© Provided by Savannah Morning News Standing beside the Confederate Monument in Forsyth Park, members of the 8th Georgia Infantry give a 21-gun salute during Sunday’s Confederate Memorial Day observance.

When I was a youthful activist in 1971 teaching Race and Culture at Western Michigan University, my reading list easily conformed to today’s Black Lives Matter curriculum. I assigned WEB DuBois’ “Black Reconstruction,” Bobby Seale’s “Seize the Time,” Lerone Bennett’s “Black Power USA,” George Jackson’s “Soledad Brother,” Eugene Genovese’s “Political Economy of Slavery,” and “The African Slave Trade” by Basil Davidson, among several others.  

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One book in particular riveted my attention. It was “Rehearsal for Reconstruction, the Port Royal Experiment” by Willy Rose Lee. This instructive book focused on efforts to provide 40 acres and a mule to formerly enslaved people in the Sea Islands between Savannah and Charleston. 

Wanting to visit the lowcountry, during one Christmas break, I flew to Atlanta and there — and this reflects a huge difference between then and now — we put out our thumbs headed for Savannah.  

© Barry Wood Barry Wood

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Five decades later I returned to Savannah and stayed again at the John Wesley Hotel, now the Planters Inn. What I found in Savannah was fantastic, the advance in race relations being palpable and pervasive. 

In 1971, Civil War markers focused on the war itself with little mention of slavery. In 2021, the historical presentation is comprehensive and balanced. The city’s central role in slavery is out in the open, beginning with the sobering historical marker near the site where the largest slave auction in history, The Weeping Time, took place. 

Look at the progress. Savannah has a Black mayor, six of eight city council members are Black as are the school superintendent, a local university president, the city police chief and the chairman of the county commission.  

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On River Street, I stood before the large African-America monument inscribed with the poignant words of Maya Angelou.  

“We were stolen, sold and bought together from the African continent. We got on the slave ships together. We lay back to belly in the holds of the slave ships in each other’s excrement and urine together…..Today, we are standing up together, with faith and even some joy.” 

This painful imagery matches the horrific narrative of “Black Cargoes,” a book I used in Race and Culture in 1971. 

In the park adjacent to General W.T. Sherman’s headquarters is the 21st century plaque on Field Orders Number 15 and the Port Royal experiment.   

Telling the whole story of the Civil War was a goal I and others promoted five decades ago. Savannah is achieving that objective.  

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Courageously, it is resisting calls to reshape history by removing all Confederate monuments.  Still standing in magnificent Forsyth Park is the 1875 monument honoring the 258,000 Confederate soldiers who died in the Civil War.  

Civil rights leader Andrew Young, a confidante of Martin Luther King and former mayor of Atlanta, has urged those attacking Confederate monuments to focus on substance instead of symbols. He advocates new memorials like those in Savannah and views those from another era as teaching opportunities. 

I agree.

This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: Savannah sets the standard for addressing ugly history of slavery, Civil War

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