Owens-Thomas House & Slave Quarters Audio Tour
Listening Station 1: Welcome & Timeline
Welcome to the Owens-Thomas House & Slave Quarters. 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 story focuses primarily on the 1820s and 1830s, when Savannah’s population numbered around 7,000 people, including wealthy white residents, working-class white residents, and enslaved and free people of color.
Shipping merchant Richard Richardson commissioned this house around 1816, and his family moved in upon its completion in 1819. The 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 Richardson to relocate to Louisiana and sell the property. For six years after the Richardsons’ departure, Mary Maxwell, a widowed entrepreneur, operated an upscale boarding house on the site. In 1825, the Marquis de Lafayette, the famous American Revolutionary War general, stayed in the boarding house during his visit to Savannah. In 1830, lawyer and landholder George Welshman Owens purchased this home for his family’s primary residence. He lived here with his wife, Sarah, and their six children. George and Sarah Owenses’ granddaughter Margaret Gray Thomas bequeathed the property to the Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences, now known as Telfair Museums, upon her death in 1951. It opened to the public as a museum in 1954.
As you can see on this timeline, census records indicate that often more enslaved people lived on this property than the numbers of individuals in the Richardson and Owens families. Today, tours at the Owens-Thomas House & Slave Quarters tell the story of the relationships between the wealthy white families that lived in this home and the individuals of African descent whom they enslaved. Most of this information is derived from letters and documents written by the Owenses and their peers, so it is inherently biased. Research on these families and the individuals they enslaved is ongoing.
This Orientation Gallery is located in the original carriage house. It had space for horses and carriages on the first floor and a hayloft on the second. Your next listening station is in this room at the Wall of Names.
Listening Station 2: Wall of Names
The entire political and economic system of the South was structured around the institution of slavery in the early 19th century. Although five to 14 people were enslaved on this property at any given time, the creation of the wealth required to maintain the Richardsons’ and Owenses’ lifestyles was reliant on exploiting enslaved labor in a variety of industries.
Richard Richardson made most of his fortune shipping goods in and out of the bustling port of Savannah. In addition to transporting goods like cotton that were generated through enslaved labor, Richardson also participated in the slave trade. During his time in Savannah, he shipped hundreds of people out of the port, and a large portion of them were children.
George Welshman Owens worked as an attorney and served in several elected offices, including mayor and U.S. Congressman, but most of his income came from his vast agricultural holdings. Owens enslaved over 400 people on various properties around the state, producing rice, cotton, and other goods for market.
The names of some of the people enslaved by the Richardson and Owens families are displayed on this wall to remind us that the economic exploitation of slavery reached far beyond this urban property.
Please proceed out the doors and up the ramp to your right to visit the next stop on your tour.
Listening Station 3: Slave Quarters
The majority of the enslaved people who worked on this property lived in this building. Most of the enslaved people here were female, and many were children or teenagers, but it is not clear what relationships they had, if any. The Owenses may have pulled enslaved laborers from an agricultural labor setting because of their skills or lack of usefulness in the fields. Instead, these individuals worked in domestic labor duties like cooking, cleaning, washing laundry, caring for horses and livestock, driving carriages, and raising children. Life for enslaved people in urban settings had some key differences from enslaved people’s experiences on rural sites. While they might receive better food, clothing, and shelter here, they also were kept under close watch by their enslavers, white neighbors, constables, and others. Enslaved people at urban locations were more likely to be separated from relatives and friends who lived at rural sites. Their proximity to their enslavers also made them more susceptible to violence and sexual assault.
You can view the second floor of the slave quarters via the staircase. Please proceed up the stairs one person at a time.
Architectural evidence suggests that wood partitions divided each floor in this building into two small rooms and a large room near the fireplace. Originally, stairs on the left side of the fireplace led to the second floor, with a small landing and hallway to reach the other rooms. It is not apparent if these divisions were for privacy and sleeping, or for other purposes. Some individuals, like the nursemaid and cook, probably slept closer to their workspaces in the main house. The beds on view here are examples of sleeping arrangements that former enslaved individuals described to interviewers during Works Progress Administration fieldwork in the 1930s.
Once you have finished here, you will find the next listening station in the garden. Please be mindful of other visitors as you descend the stairs and exit this building.
Listening Station 4: 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. This area originally functioned as a work yard. Oyster shell paths led through the space, which probably included a small kitchen garden, areas to dry laundry and clean rugs, and perhaps pens or coops for small livestock and chickens. We do know that Richard Richardson kept a cow on the property at one time, because he was cited by the city when it escaped and blocked traffic. A two-stall brick privy, likely intended for enslaved laborers’ use, stood in a rear corner of the yard until the 1950s garden installation.
From here, you also can see the spaces over the back porch that George Owens added when he purchased the home. The linear patterns incised in the stucco and painted on the siding mimic smooth stonework. The remainder of the house has been restored to the stucco treatment in place during the Richardsons’ occupation.
Please proceed to the back porch via the right staircase and watch for other groups exiting the house.
Listening Station 5: Back Porch
The rear entrances to the house, on the porch and in the basement below, would have been the primary access points for enslaved laborers. Family members and tradesmen also would have used this back entrance and the rear hall. Other guests, however, were welcomed at the front of the house.
Richard Richardson’s home would have made quite an impression on these guests. Its location on a large lot on Oglethorpe Square made a statement about the Richardsons’ place within society. Around 1816, Richardson hired an architect, his relative William Jay, to design the building. Trained in London, Jay designed a home in keeping with fashions in England, freely using motifs inspired by ancient Greek and Roman architecture on the interior and exterior. Jay went on to design several other homes in the city, including what is now the Telfair Academy. John Retan, whose name is inscribed in mortar underneath the front porch stairs, supervised construction. It is not known how many individuals, including enslaved laborers, built this home.
One of the key elements of early 19th century architecture was symmetry. This is especially apparent here, where a blind, non-functional window on the right side of the porch balances the usable window on the left. As you move through the house, look for other places where pairs of architectural elements have been designed, even where they may not have an obvious function. Please proceed into the rear hall and move to your right to continue your tour.
Listening Station 6: Family Dining Room
Each of the rooms in the Owens-Thomas House & Slave Quarters is furnished according to historic records and other resources. While select pieces came from the Richardson and Owens families, most of the objects and art you will see are works from Telfair Museums’ collections that were made or used during the first half of the 19th century.
A range of activities took place in this family dining room, including eating informal meals, reading, learning lessons, playing games, drawing and painting, sewing, or playing musical instruments. It is similar to the ways many families use their kitchens or living rooms today. However, this family would have been served by enslaved servants passing to and from the butler’s pantry, which is located off the right corner.
Though George Owens was the head of his household, when he traveled or was away serving in political office, Sarah Owens oversaw her family, home, and many other aspects of the Owenses’ agricultural pursuits. We know from George’s letters to Sarah that these duties included negotiating the sale or purchase of enslaved laborers. White women in Sarah’s position also commonly held control of and access to some of the expensive food and goods within the home, kept under lock and key in spaces such as the cellar and the butler’s pantry.
As you leave this room, notice, but please don’t touch, the small knobs located on the right side of the door frame. These knobs rang bells in the basement to summon an enslaved servant or cue the next course of a meal.
Listening Station 7: Formal Dining Room
Because most of the city’s wealthy white population escaped the heat, humidity, and spread of disease in Savannah in the summer, their social season typically lasted from late September until May. The Richardsons likely used this room for various social entertainments, including formal dining, for large groups of guests. By the Owenses’ time in the home, specific rooms for formal dining became popular, and these occasions would have been very important for a wealthy politician like George Owens. Many locally, regionally, and nationally prominent men and women dined in this room, including President James K. Polk. After dinner, while women retired to the drawing room, men remained to enjoy drinks and cigars.
Peter, who we believe to have been the Owenses’ enslaved butler, organized and led the service for these dinners. He and other enslaved servants extended the table to the length needed to accommodate guests, and then placed leaves, or removable pieces of tabletop, on the braces. They set the table and sideboards with cloths and large amounts of dishes, glasses, and silverware. They also attended and served these lengthy, multi-course meals and all their after-dinner activities.
Enslaved butlers held a challenging position in the structure of domestic slavery. Enslavers often highly valued good butlers because of the importance of a butler’s duties to their own status. For this reason, butlers sometimes received privileges or access to information that other enslaved laborers did not. However, this did not change these butlers’ overall enslaved status, while their elevated position sometimes made them untrustworthy in the eyes of other enslaved people.
Listening Station 8: Drawing Room
The elaborate finishes here, in the dining room, and in the front hall were meant to signal the family’s wealth, education, and taste level. The ornament in these rooms shows that the patrons were familiar with ancient Greek and Roman architecture, at least enough to know that it was stylish among the upper classes throughout Europe. The families may have had an enslaved servant dress in livery, or a fancy uniform, to further impress guests entering the home. The Richardsons and Owenses would have welcomed only certain elite individuals into the drawing room for tea, social visits, or after-dinner entertainment. In these instances, the Owens daughters would have demonstrated their skills at playing music or engaging in conversation to meet social expectations.
Enslaved maids would have needed to constantly clean to keep up these appearances, especially in early 19th century Savannah. The windows, left open for ventilation, allowed dust and grime from the dirt streets to settle on all the surfaces in the room. Likewise, the enslaved maids needed to clean the expensive carpets in these rooms by hand, watching for spots to avoid permanent staining. Notice that there are oilcloths in the busy hall areas. For areas of high traffic, these oiled and painted canvases created a floor surface that could be more easily cleaned and replaced.
Please proceed up the stairs carefully to your right, being conscious of other groups descending. The next station will be the girls’ bed chamber, which is on the left side of the stairs when you reach the upper landing.
Listening Station 9: Girls’ Bed Chamber
Although little information exists about the bed chambers in this home, the numerous Richardson and Owens children likely shared rooms, and even beds. Mary, Margaret, and Sarah Owens took lessons with a private tutor and attended local schools. George Owens encouraged them to practice their writing by sending him letters. They also probably learned reading, arithmetic, and geography, as well as drawing, needlework, and music, to demonstrate their refinement. Some toys, such as tea sets, prepared them for futures running a household and entertaining.
In all these activities, enslaved servants would have attended to the Owens daughters. A nursemaid or even an enslaved child likely slept on a bed roll in their room in case they had any needs at night. Perhaps Fanny, the 9-year-old enslaved girl who George Owens mentions in one of his letters, slept here.
Numerous enslaved children lived on this property. The 1840 US Census lists six enslaved girls under the age of 10. They would not have had much access to formal education, as local and state law prohibited teaching enslaved and free people of color how to read and write. These children more likely learned practical skills such as cooking, sewing, and cleaning through working alongside their elders.
Listening Station 10: Hallway
This hallway, which was originally three small rooms, was part of the original plumbing system, a luxurious innovation for a home in the United States during this period. Cisterns in the attic, between the floors, and in the basement supplied running water from rainwater captured on the roof to all levels of the home. The area in the center of this hallway 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 primary bed chamber below, which had a tub and flush water closet. Toward the end of the glass, you can see the flushing mechanism for the facilities. Although it is larger and made of heavier materials, it essentially has the same design as the components in the back of modern toilets.
Enslaved laborers likely would not have been allowed to use this system. They used the privy, or outhouse, that was in the corner of the rear yard.
The tour continues in the library directly across the hall.
Listening Station 11: Library
George Owens met with friends and colleagues for business and social visits in this library. Owens was politically active locally and nationally, serving as alderman in Savannah for 11 years, and as mayor in 1832. He also served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1835 to 1839.
Bound copies of debate records during Owens’ years in Congress are in the bookcase over the desk in this room. He participated in numerous legislative actions. In 1836, Owens and his southern peers succeeded in passing the first gag rule, which tabled any discussion of the abolition of slavery in the House of Representatives. Southern lawmakers, who relied on enslaving people to maintain economic and political dominance, strongly opposed abolition and fought vigorously to keep any debate about it out of the halls of Congress. Owens likewise supported other measures, such as the forced removal of Cherokee peoples from the South, that helped wealthy white enslavers like himself to expand their land holdings and solidify their economic and political power.
Listening Station 12: Boys’ Bed Chamber
Unlike their sisters, the Owens sons’ education continued beyond local academies to prepare them to follow in their father’s footsteps and conduct business in the world. After their early education, they attended universities. The oldest son, Richard, went to the University of Pennsylvania, while his younger brothers John and George studied at the newly opened Oglethorpe College in Milledgeville, then the capital of Georgia.
Like most children from wealthy southern families, enslaved women likely cared for the Owens children for most of their lives. Many white wealthy families enslaved young women as wet nurses for their children. Yet, as adults, John and George Owens wrote about disciplining enslaved servants in letters to family members. They also placed enslaved servants in the local jail for punishments on several occasions, including a woman named Emma. In John’s will, he left $100 to his “faithful nurse, Emma,” but in this same document he also detailed continued ownership of Emma’s daughter, Harriet, and her children within the Owens family. He probably viewed this as generous, because he had been taught by his parents and society to treat enslaved people as property.
Please descend the stairs immediately to your left. At the bottom of the stairway, turn right to return to the rear hall and proceed to the next listening station in the first-floor bedchamber.
Listening Station 13: Principal Bed Chamber
This room was the primary bed chamber for the home, a private space for Richard and Frances Richardson and George and Sarah Owens. The bust of the Marquis de Lafayette in this room honors his stay in this house while visiting Savannah during his tour of the United States celebrating the 50th anniversary of the American Revolution. The French general provided help to the colonists during the war, including successfully lobbying for aid from France and leading forces in critical battles. When Lafayette visited Savannah in 1825, he was the last surviving major general of the Revolution and somewhat of a celebrity in the United States. Lafayette was also an ardent abolitionist and was greatly disappointed that the US 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!” 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 enslavers to keep their enslaved laborers out of sight and warning free people of color to stay away from the parades and other events celebrating Lafayette.
Please return to the back porch and use the right-side staircase to reach the stairs to the basement, where the tour continues in the first room on the right.
Listening Station 14: Kitchen
This is the original kitchen for the property. The Owenses’ enslaved cook, who may have been named Diana, spent most of her time in this space. She would have awoken before sunrise to start the fires for the cast iron range and in the inset bake oven in the wall. These fires likely blazed all day, causing a huge amount of heat to be generated in this small and cramped workspace. In addition to preparing daily meals for the Owens family and enslaved household, the cook probably was responsible for purchasing foodstuffs from markets, as well as collecting any materials from the work yard, such as herbs from the kitchen garden or eggs from chickens. Other enslaved servants, including children, likely helped the cook with these tasks, but under her supervision and instruction. Additionally, because Sarah Owens would have determined the menus, the cook would have created dishes according to Sarah’s wishes.
Because of the Owenses’ social standing and Savannahians’ dining habits, Diana and other enslaved servants likely prepared very complicated, time-consuming, and challenging dishes for the elaborate dinners that took place when the family was entertaining guests. They used heavy cast iron kettles and pans and large earthenware bowls, and they would not have slept until after they cleaned and stored everything that they used in these processes.
Listening Station 15: Scullery
The scullery typically was dedicated to tasks involving water. Enslaved women washed pots and pans, prepared vegetables, and may have cleaned laundry in this room. Laundry was a hazardous task before modern technology. Boiling water and lye, a caustic ingredient in soap making that often irritates or damages skin, made it both exhausting and dangerous.
Enslaved servants likely washed their clothes separately from the Owenses’ in the yard outside the slave quarters when other tasks were complete.
Beyond this room is the cellar, which housed many valuable commodities and remained under lock and key. It is difficult to determine who had access to the goods stored here and how much discretion they had over their use. The cook certainly needed access to sugar, spices, and other valuable ingredients, and the butler also needed to obtain the wine he served upstairs, but Sarah Owens likely kept these keys.
Listening Station 16: Cistern & Ice Chamber
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.
Pass through the cistern on the glass floor and walk up the steps to see inside the ice chamber. Fortunately for Richard 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. Enslaved delivery men brought 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
Because plank walls originally divided this space into four separate chambers, it is believed to have been a bathing room. Large tubs would have rested on the slabs that you see today. The small holes lead to brick-lined drains that run under your feet and would have connected to additional drains in the center of the cellar. The rectangular, walled basin in the corner may have been a shower. Such a space would have been an immense luxury in the United States, let alone Savannah. Since the first-floor chamber had its own tub, guests and children were more likely to have used this room. Enslaved people bathed used a wash tub 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
At Telfair Museums, our research into the lives of the people who have lived and worked at our historic sites continues. Although we have personal letters, legal documents, and other primary resources to tell us about the lives and opinions of the white families who occupied these spaces, there remains much to learn about the enslaved people and others whose voices have not been allowed to be heard.
Despite slavery legally ending in the United States in 1865, its legacy remains. Many people in our society are still denied access to healthcare, nutritious food, clean water, quality education, and equal treatment before the law. Addressing these inequalities involves difficult conversations and risks but is necessary for disrupting the cycles of systemic oppression that haunt our society to this day.
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.