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Welcome to the Owens-Thomas House & Slave Quarters. As you travel through the site today, please remember to remain with your group, remain on the designated path, and wait until the next listening station is vacant to advance. There will be historical interpreters on each level of the house. They are happy to answer any questions you may have.
As you make your way around the property today, you’ll explore the lives of the free and enslaved people who lived and worked here. Our interpretation focuses primarily on the 1820s and 1830s, when Savannah’s population numbered around 7,000 people, including wealthy white residents, working class white residents, enslaved people, and free people of color. Our story focuses on the relationships and interactions between the elite residents of this home and the people they enslaved on the property.


Now available on Spotify and Apple Podcasts

Listening Station 1: Timeline

This house was commissioned by Richard Richardson, whose family moved in upon its completion in 1819. Richardson’s family only lived in the home for a few years before the combination of a major fire in the city, a yellow fever epidemic, and several deaths in his family forced him to sell the property and relocate to Louisiana. For six years after the Richardsons’ departure, Mary Maxwell operated an upscale boarding house on the property. In 1825, the Marquis de Lafayette stayed in the boarding house during his visit to Savannah. In 1830, George Welshman Owens purchased this home for his family’s primary residence. He lived here with his wife, Sarah, and their six children. All three of his daughters spent the rest of their lives in the home. Only one of them married. Margaret Wallace Owens married Dr. James Gray Thomas, a confederate surgeon, in 1865. Only two of their five children survived to adulthood, and neither of them married. In 1951, their daughter Margaret Gray Thomas bequeathed the property to the Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences. It opened to the public in 1954. As you look at the timeline, notice that the census records for particular years are featured below. They indicate that the number of people enslaved on the property often outnumbered the people they served.

Listening Station 2: Wall of Names

The entire political and economic system of the South was structured around the system of slavery in the early 19th century. Although eight to 14 people were enslaved on this property at any given time, the creation of the wealth required to maintain the Richardsons’ and Owens’ lifestyles was reliant on exploiting enslaved labor in a variety of industries.
Though he served as the president of two banks, Richard Richardson made most of his money as a shipping merchant, shipping goods in and out of the bustling port of Savannah. He did not limit himself to inanimate commodities. During his time in Savannah, Richardson shipped at least 197 people out of the port of Savannah to be sold in New Orleans. Half of them were children.
George Welshman Owens worked as an attorney and served in several elected offices, including mayor and U.S. House Representative. Neither of these occupations made him nearly the money he made in agricultural endeavors. Owens enslaved around 400 people on various properties around the state, producing rice, cotton, and other goods for market.
The names of the people enslaved by Richardson and Owens are displayed on this wall to remind us that the economic exploitation of slavery reached beyond this property.

Listening Station 3: Slave Quarters

The three rooms on two levels of this building housed the majority of the nine to 14 enslaved people who lived and worked on the property at any given time.  A few people, like the nursemaid and cook, probably slept closer to their workspaces in the main house. Most of the people here were female and many were children or teenagers. We can’t be sure how many of these people were related to each other. There is no evidence that the people enslaved here were family groups. They were likely people pulled from an agricultural labor setting because of particular skills or lack of usefulness in the fields. Instead, they worked in domestic labor like cooking, cleaning, washing laundry, caring for horses and livestock, driving carriages, and raising children.
Life for enslaved people in urban areas had some key differences from their experience on rural agricultural holdings. While they might be provided with better food, clothing, and shelter here, they were also under constant scrutiny by the people who enslaved them. This close proximity increased the opportunity for sexual violence. They were also more likely to be separated from an extended kinship network.

Listening Station 4: Privy

The Owens-Thomas House is unusual in a number of ways, but the indoor plumbing system is perhaps the most surprising. Designed by architect William Jay, this system featured running water on all levels of the home, including a tub and flushing water closet in the master bathroom; a flushing water closet and sink in the upstairs bathroom; and two tubs, a sink, and a standing shower in the basement. All these fixtures were fed by cisterns located in the attic, between the floors, and in the basement. The cisterns were fed by rainwater from the roof.
This plumbing system was intended primarily for the luxury and convenience of the owners of the home. It is unlikely that enslaved people were permitted to use the bathing facilities or flush water closets.
In the early 19th century, a two-sided privy stood in this corner of the yard. Enslaved people on the property, along with any hired laborers, would have used these facilities.

Listening Station 5: Garden

The formal garden on view today was designed by landscape architect Clermont Lee and installed in the 1950s when the house became a museum. Although the parterre style is appropriate for an English Regency villa, it is not how the space would have looked in the early 19th century. This space originally functioned as a work yard. Oyster shell paths led through the space, which included a small kitchen garden, a space to dry laundry, and probably some livestock like chickens. We do know that Richardson had a cow on the property at one time because he was cited by the city when It escaped and blocked traffic.
When the museum opened in the 1950s, there was no mention of the people enslaved on the property. Like most house museums, this one focused on the luxury and aesthetic appeal of the lifestyles of the wealthy, centering a mythology of moonlight and magnolias. It has taken decades of labor, research, and collaboration to construct an honest interpretation of the history of this period. We continue to hone our presentation as facts present themselves.

Listening Station 6: Back Porch

This house was designed to make a statement. Richard Richardson hired his relative William Jay to design an impressive show place. Jay studied at the Royal Academy in London and became the first professionally trained architect to work in Savannah. In a city filled with modest wooden structures and a few brick Federalist style houses, Jay chose the English Regency style. With its classical Greek and Roman motifs, focus on symmetry, and elaborate faux finishes, the house made a statement of Richardson’s position in society.
Here you can see the staircases and doors on either side to maintain balance, taken a step further in the blind window on the right balancing the real window on the left. All the doors here are local pine, painted to mimic a mahogany finish.
Please watch for other groups exiting as you enter the home.

Listening Station 7: Family Dining Room

The family dining room was the site of various activities, including informal meals, reading, and playing games or musical instruments, much like our own living rooms today. It was also likely the location for the Owens’ children’s early education. All six of the Owens’ children attended school in Savannah, with the boys continuing their education in universities. Before they began attending school, the children were taught reading, writing, and basic math by their mother or governess.
The children enslaved on the property were not given formal education, but they did learn from a variety of sources. They likely overheard many of the lessons that took place in this space and might have been taught some things by their white contemporaries during play. They were definitely taught a variety of skills like cooking, cleaning, and sewing from their elders.
Savannah was also home to a number of secret schools that taught free and enslaved people of color to read and write. Many of these schools were taught by free black women at the risk of their own safety.
As you leave this room, notice, but please don’t touch, the bell pulls located on the door frames. These pulls rang bells in the basement to summon an enslaved servant or cue the next course of a meal.

Listening Station 8: Formal Dining Room

The formal dining room was the site of frequent entertaining. As a wealthy politician, George Owens socialized with locally, regionally, and nationally prominent men and women. Many of them dined in this room, including President Polk. After dinner, as the ladies retired to a separate room, the men remained in this space to enjoy drinks and cigars. Much of the conversation in this space likely revolved around politics and current events.
Peter, the Owens’ enslaved butler, organized and led the service in this space. He and his assistants likely overheard conversations not intended for their ears—conversations Peter could then share with his companions in the basement and slave quarters.
As educated leaders of the community, enslavers often believed they held information and understanding denied to the people they enslaved, but it is likely that as an inhabitant of both the upstairs and downstairs, Peter was the true arbiter of knowledge.
He and others like him existed within the margins. As the highest-ranking enslaved person on the property, Peter might have been alienated from the other enslaved people on the site who saw him as a collaborator or enforcer. Yet, as an enslaved person, he would never be part of the Owens family.

Listening Station 9: Drawing Room

The Richardsons and Owens used this room to entertain their visitors. This was likely the site of both pre-dinner cocktails and after-dinner entertainments that could include conversation, games, and music. Of course, without radios or streaming services, they needed to make their own music. Music, art, language, and handicrafts were a few of the subjects the daughters of the wealthy would have covered in their education.
The social season in Savannah began in October and lasted until May. In the summer months, most wealthy citizens retreated to more desirable climates in the northern states or in Europe. Savannah summers are hot and in the 19th century were plagued with diseases like yellow fever. For much of their occupancy, the windows would have remained open for ventilation. With dirt streets and horses for transportation, these rooms likely became dusty quickly, requiring constant cleaning, particularly of the wall to wall carpets.
Please proceed up the stairs carefully, being conscious of other groups descending.

Listening Station 10: Hallway

This hallway, which was originally three small rooms, was part of the original plumbing system. The area in the center with the lowered ceiling held a flush water closet with a cistern above in the attic. Further down, marks on the wall indicate where a sink was once mounted. At the end of the hall, we have replaced several boards with glass. The glass is safe to walk on. Through the glass, you can see the cistern that is located between the first and second floors.  This cistern fed water to the master bathroom below. Toward the end of the glass, you can see the flushing mechanism for the facilities below. Although it’s larger and made of heavier materials, it has essentially the same design as the components in the back of modern toilets.
The walls were removed to create a hallway after modern plumbing was installed in the 20th century.

Listening Station 11: Library

This is the library, where George Owens met with friends and colleagues for business and social visits. Owens was politically active locally and nationally, serving as alderman in Savannah for 11 years between 1817 and 1843, including a term as mayor in 1832. He also served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1835 to 1839.
Bound copies of Owens’ congressional debate records are in the secretary in this room. Though he was in office for fours years, he only actively participated in passing one piece of legislation. In the 19th century, like today, petitioning the government was one of the ways citizens made their views and desires known to their representatives. In the early 19th century, many abolitionists sent letters and petitions to congress. In the 1837-1838 session for example, they received 130,000 petitions advocating for the abolition of slavery. Of course, Southern lawmakers, who relied on enslaving people to maintain their economic dominance, opposed the abolition of slavery and fought vigorously to keep any debate about abolition out of the halls of Congress.
In 1836, they succeeded in passing the first gag rule, which tabled any discussion of abolition in the House of Representatives.

Listening Station 12: Northwest Bed Chamber

The Owens children, like children from most wealthy Southern families, were cared for by enslaved women, in this case, women called Emma and Mom Kate. These women occupied a unique space in the system. They raised children from birth, spending more time with them than either of their parents and seeing to their daily needs.
The children they raised would have viewed them much like a mother and felt a deep bond. Yet, those children were being taught from birth by parents and society that Emma and Mom Kate were beneath them, that they were property that could be bought and sold. Emma would have needed to discipline the children to teach them to behave in society, all the while knowing that they could one day discipline her by sending her to the local jail, which they did when she was 60 years old.
Nursemaids slept on pallets like the one stored under the bed here, while their young charges slept in beds. We don’t know where Emma’s daughter Harriet slept. She could have slept in the slave quarters with the other people enslaved on the property, or she might have been left at one of the Owens’ rural enslaved labor camps.

Listening Station 13: Parents’ Bed Chamber

This room, which is furnished as a typical 19th century bedchamber in a wealthy home, features a bust of the Marquis de Lafayette. Lafayette was the French general who brought aid to the patriots during the American Revolution. He returned to France to play a pivotal though complicated role in the French Revolution, including drafting the Declaration of Rights of Man and of the Citizen.
Lafayette was also an ardent abolitionist and was greatly disappointed that the United States chose to continue the system of slavery after gaining independence from Britain. Lafayette is said to have told a friend, “I would never have drawn my sword in the cause of America if I could have conceived that thereby I was founding a land of slavery!”
When Lafayette visited Savannah in 1825, he was the last surviving major general of the Revolution and somewhat of a superstar in the United States. Savannahians were nervous about one of the world’s most famous abolitionists visiting a city filled with enslaved people. The mayor even published a notice in local newspapers beforehand to remind slave owners to keep their enslaved servants off the streets and out of sight.

Listening Station 14: Kitchen

This room is the original kitchen for the property. Diane, the enslaved cook for the Owens family, spent the majority of her time in this space. With the help of other enslaved women and girls, she prepared meals for the Owens family and the enslaved household, a total of 12 to 22 people, on a daily basis. In addition, she prepared elaborate dinners when George and Sarah Owens entertained.
Diane probably prepared food for the enslaved members of the household at the same time she was preparing more elaborate meals for the Owens family and their guests. Simple dishes like rice or cornbread appeared on both tables, but additional dishes varied. While several types of meat, fish, vegetables, fruits, and desserts only graced the upstairs table, lesser cuts of meat left over from other recipes were sometimes added to meals downstairs, where enslaved members of the household likely ate.
Diane began her day before the sun came up and worked until well after dark. Because of her demanding workload, it is likely that she slept in the basement near the kitchen rather than in the slave quarters.

Listening Station 15: Scullery

This is the scullery, a place for tasks involving water. Enslaved women washed pots and pans, prepped vegetables, and cleaned laundry in this room. Laundry was a hazardous task before modern technology. Boiling water and lye, a caustic ingredient in soap making, made it both exhausting and dangerous.
It is unlikely that the enslaved servants were allowed to wash their own clothes along with the Owens’ laundry. They probably did their own laundry in the yard outside the slave quarters when their other tasks were complete.
Beyond this room is the cellar, which housed many valuable commodities and remained under lock and key. Wealthy women, like Frances Richardson or Sarah Owens, retained the key and control over the space and its contents. It is difficult to determine who else had access to the goods stored here and how much discretion they had over their use. Diane, the Owens’ cook, certainly needed access to sugar, spices, and other valuable ingredients. Peter, the Owens’ butler, also needed access to the coffee, tea, and wine he served upstairs. Access to provisions varied household to household in the South while slavery was legal.

Listening Station 16: Cistern

The Owens-Thomas House is remarkable for its extensive indoor plumbing system, a technological marvel at the time. The plumbing system used rainwater captured from the roof and stored in cisterns on three different levels.
The sophisticated innovation of an indoor plumbing system changed the daily lives of the house’s inhabitants in profound ways. For the Richardsons and Owenses, the system was a mark of elite social status, not to mention a convenience. For the enslaved people in the house, the system meant less water to haul from the well and fewer chamber pots to empty. It also meant maintaining, cleaning, and repairing a one-of-a-kind plumbing system in a city without trained plumbers.
Look beyond the cistern to the small door. Fortunately for Richardson and others of his economic class, the ice trade was beginning to flourish at the time this house was constructed, allowing for refrigeration and food preservation. Workers in the Northeast cut 50-pound blocks of ice from lakes, packed them in straw and sawdust to slow melting, and shipped them down the coast on steamships. Draymen, who were often enslaved, delivered blocks of ice to the house where the butler oversaw their movement through the trap door and into the ice chamber.

Listening Station 17: Bathing Chamber

This space originally served as a bathing chamber and was likely used by the owners’ children and guests, while the couple who owned the home bathed in the master suite upstairs. Boldly adorned with marble fixtures and stone tile floors, this once lavish space offered the Richardson and Owens families a level of luxury beyond compare in Savannah and most of the United States.
Walls originally divided this space into four separate chambers. Their division is visible in the marks on the ceiling. Two of these rooms each contained a marble bathtub, and one held a shower. The fourth room contained only a fireplace and likely served as a dressing room. The bathtubs and shower were fed with water from the state-of-the-art indoor plumbing system. Look down to see the original water drains in the floor.
Because a chamber like this was such a luxury, it is unlikely that any enslaved servants used these bathing facilities themselves. Emma would have bathed the Owens children here, and others would have waited on their enslavers in this space. Enslaved people bathed using a bucket in front of the fireplace in their sleeping quarters, the same method used by other people of lower economic status regardless of race.

Listening Station 18: Moving Forward

We often question how hundreds of thousands of people woke up every day surrounded by bondage yet did nothing to dismantle the system of oppression. We ask ourselves what we would do in their place. Would we have enslaved other human beings, would we have turned a blind eye, would we have sacrificed our safety and comfort to fight for justice? It is no longer legal to enslave human beings in the United States, but oppression still exists. Access to healthcare, nutritious food, clean water, quality education, and equal treatment before the law still elude many people in our society. It’s not too late to become an abolitionist.

Once you’ve completed this audio tour of the Owens-Thomas House & Slave Quarters, please visit our other museums. While there, explore the Jepson Center’s Architecture Audio Tour or Telfair Academy’s Architecture Audio Tour.

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