by Shannon Browning-Mullis, Curator of History and Decorative Arts
At the Owens-Thomas House and the Telfair Academy, we’re frequently asked by visitors if Richard Richardson, George Owens, and Mary Telfair were good people. Were they bad people? Were they kind to their slaves? The fact is, they weren’t good people or bad people. They were simply humans making both good and bad decisions, decisions which generally served their own best interests. Though slavery was unequivocally bad, the relationships between enslaved people and free Savannahians were both intimate and complicated. The complexity of this reality is difficult to communicate to the public, but the use of objects can be an interesting and personal way to lead our visitors through an exploration of these multifaceted ideas.
This task became a bit easier at the Owens-Thomas House with a recent acquisition that offers the opportunity to explore the illegal slave trade, complicated court systems, corrupt local officials, and contradictory morals…all in one painting. The painting in question, displayed in the Owens-Thomas House library, features Richard Wylly Habersham and his family.
The complexity of the slave system and the people involved in it is evident in the life and career of Mr. Habersham. Though not a planter with numerous slaves, Habersham did own slaves and came from a family of wealthy planters. Yet, as US Attorney he insisted on fighting for the freedom of the Africans on the slave ship Antelope. The story of the Antelope and the man who attempted to free its captives while owning his own slaves is a compelling example of the complex relationships our site highlights.
In addition to his fascinating involvement in the Antelope case, Richard Wylly Habersham had connections to the families in our institutional history. Richard Habersham was a classmate of Thomas Telfair, Mary’s brother, at Princeton. Mary Telfair and her sisters were good friends of Mrs. Habersham (Sarah Hazzard Elliot), who is also depicted in the painting. Mary described her evenings with the Habershams, including Richard encouraging the men to sneak into the back room for drinks, in her correspondence with her friend Mary Few. Richard and Sarah Habersham’s eldest son, Richard West Habersham (who may be one of the children pictured in the painting), painted Mary Telfair and her sisters in 1834. It appears that they became rather close, and we have descriptions of the sisters from young Richard. The Habersham family was related to Richard Richardson by marriage through the Bolton family, and Habersham was active in local and national politics at the same time as George Welshman Owens, sometimes appearing on the same ticket.
Telfair’s acquisition of this painting was made possible by the tremendous generosity of several loyal supporters and the quick action of the museum’s Collections Committee. The painting was discovered at auction at Sotheby’s in New York by a Savannah native and longtime friend of the Telfair, Davida Tenenbaum Deutsch, who realized the impact it would have on our collections and programming.
With just a few days’ notice, our Collections Committee was able to formally approve the purchase and a small but incredibly generous group of donors raised the necessary funds to both purchase the painting and have it conserved. We are deeply grateful to the Critz Family, Davida Tenenbaum Deutsch, Barbara and Carl Sassano, Bob and Jean Faircloth, Alice and Bob Jepson, Dayle and Aaron Levy, Melissa Parker, Marilyn and Wayne Sheridan, and Mary E. Raines for their support of this purchase.