Savannah: On the Freedom Trail
You’ve been on the move for weeks and have barely had a moment’s rest. You’ve been hiding out in the woods, trying to stay out of sight of the dogs that are fresh on your trail. Posters with a sketch of your face and your description have been circulating to other plantations in the area. Overseers and bounty hunters are on high alert because there’s a steep prize for your capture. So you don’t have time to think about your blistered feet, hungrily-aching stomach, or your foul scent. You’ve left a lifetime of picking cotton, cruel beatings, rapes, and forced separation from your family behind you on that plantation, and you’d rather die than go back. So you know that you have to keep moving if you ever want to make your way to freedom.
You’ve heard that there’s a certain church in Savannah that’s not only a house of worship, but a stop on the Underground Railroad serving as a place of refuge where you can refuel for your journey to freedom in the North.
You’ve finally made it to Savannah, but you’re a bit nervous as you approach the church because across the street, you see a sign hanging from a wall hook advertising slaves for sale.
Does anyone in this town recognize me? Do I stand out as a runaway? These are the questions racing through your mind as you approach the church on this beautiful Sunday morning.
This is the First African Baptist Church, the first building constructed of brick in the State of Georgia that’s owned by blacks. The service hasn’t started yet, and you’ve arrived several hours early because you’ve heard that this church gets packed for Sunday service with 2,500 church members cramping into the pews inside, and another 2,500 members listening to the sermon from the outside.
Because you’ve arrived early enough, you’re able to make your way inside the church’s sanctuary. Just as you begin to wonder if this really is the refuge that you’ve heard so much about where you can get food, shelter, and directions to your next stop, you look up at the ceiling and see the 9-patch quilt design – a clear indication that you’re inside of an Underground Railroad safe house. You release a deep sigh of relief and quietly thank God for getting you here safely.
You take your seat in the jam-packed sanctuary, and your eyes take in all that they’re seeing. You’ve never been in a building as fancy as this before, especially not one that’s owned by black folks. Everything in this church is impressive – from the hand-carved pews to the 1834 Henry Irving organ, the oldest pipe organ in Georgia that was installed in the church back in 1888. Soon enough, the church service begins with songs of praise and worship.
As the sermon begins, you try your best to pay attention, but the smell of fried chicken, collards, and cornbread wafts from the baskets and lunch sacks that many congregation members have brought with them to enjoy in-between a day full of services. But your sheer joy and thankfulness to God for leading you from that nightmarish plantation helps you to refocus your attention on the sermon and teachings at hand.
As the pastor continues preaching, your eyes are drawn behind the pulpit to the beautiful stained-glass images of some of the church’s early leaders. From Reverend Campbell, the church’s fourth pastor who held the office when the church’s construction was completed in 1859, to Reverend Emmanuel King (“E.K.”) Love who was born a slave and was the church’s first pastor to earn his PhD, you’ve heard the stories of these courageous men of God who were leaders in the church and in the black community.
Following the long sermon, the minister issues the “call of salvation” – a call for churchgoers to approach the front of the church and commit their lives to Christ. You make the approach, and a deacon begins whispering in your ear. While it may seem like the deacon is just quietly praying for you, he’s actually giving you instructions and telling you his plan to get you out of the church service undetected while it’s still in progress.
You make your way downstairs to the basement where you see old wooden benches – the church’s first pews that were handmade by different families of the congregation – all adhering to a general design plan, but all reflecting individual touches.
While in the church basement, you also notice peculiar holes in the floor in a diamond-shaped pattern. This is the Congolese Cosmogram, an African prayer symbol. Those who stand in the center of the Cosmogram are believed to stand at the crossroads between life and death.
While these Cosmograms in the floor of the church basement may only seem symbolic, these holes are actually air holes for those runaways being hidden beneath. And you too will take your place beneath the floorboards until it’s time for you to depart to your next stop on the Underground Railroad.
Other Stops on the Freedom Trail Tour
American Revolution Statue
This statue honors a regiment of free Haitians who voluntarily fought to capture Savannah from the British in 1779. The drummer, Henri Christophe, later became a leader in Haiti’s fight against the French for independence, and he eventually became King of Haiti.
Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum
This museum is named after Reverend Mark Ralph Gilbert, a pastor at First African Baptist Church who became the president of the local branch of the NAACP in 1942. Gilbert firmly believed in acquiring power through the ballot box. A visit to this museum will include a video presentation highlighting Savannah’s role in the Civil Rights Movement including the Great Savannah Boycott of Levy’s department store which was the most successful boycott in the U.S.
In 1963, Savannah’s public schools were integrated one year before the passage of the Civil Rights Act.
“Savannah…the most integrated city south of the Mason-Dixon Line.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Laurel Grove South Cemetery
While whites were buried at Laurel Grove North Cemetery, many of Savannah’s Civil Rights era black educators and leaders, including ministers from the First African Church, are buried at Laurel Grove South Cemetery which was reserved for slaves and free people of color. The most poignant graves are those of unidentified slaves.
Savannah Freedom Trail Tour Booking Details & Tips
- Arrive at least 10 minutes ahead of your scheduled tour time. If not on time, the guide, Johnnie Brown, will leave you! He left us and we were only five minutes late! And we were only late because Johnnie didn’t clearly articulate the meeting spot. Despite our calls to Johnnie advising him that we were having trouble finding the meeting point, he didn’t wait for us and we literally had to chase the Freedom Trail Tour bus down in our car. We were finally able to catch up with the rest of the group at the American Revolution statue.
- Meeting Spot: Call to get the exact address on MLK Blvd., but note that the meeting spot is in the parking lot across from the Old Town Trolley Tours . This is the clue that Johnnie left out when trying to explain where we should meet.
- Cost: $25/person
- To reserve call: 912.398.2785