On September 24, 2016, the National Museum of African American History and Culture opened to the public and our country acknowledged that the lives of all our citizens are worthy of cultural celebration and historical examination.
In the past, the lives of African Americans (or Africans in America, depending on the particular case) have often been silent in our cultural institutions. Romantic visions of hoop skirted Southern belles strolling down oak alleys while Spanish moss blows in the breeze dominated the image of the South. These images rarely included the women who raised the belle’s children or the man who picked the indigo that dyed her dress. Tours of Savannah history have for too long neglected the lives of the people who built not only the historic structures we proudly display to the world, but also, through backbreaking involuntary labor, built the wealth that served as the foundation of our nation.
Over the last twenty or so years, some nationally known cultural institutions, like Monticello, Mount Vernon, and Montpelier, have made strides in presenting a more inclusive and nuanced history. One that openly acknowledges the realities and evils of slavery, while at the same time presenting their famous occupants as the complex and multidimensional people they were. Value judgments about people long dead don’t really serve us today, but questioning the legacy of the power structures that built our country is a valuable endeavor.
Savannah has also begun to make strides. The Owens-Thomas House began what came to be known as the Slavery and Freedom in Savannah project in the 1990s with the restoration of the site’s slave quarters. Since that time, stories of the enslaved people who lived and worked on the site have been increasingly incorporated into the visitors’ experience. In 2018, a new phase of the reinterpretation project fully integrated the history of these neglected people. Rather than spending equal time discussing the lives of the free and enslaved people who lived in the house (whose numbers were approximately equal), our tours and exhibits now consider the complicated and intimate relationships between these people who represented the most and least powerful people in Savannah and who lived intricately connected and interdependent lives.