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If all the world's a stage, Savannah, Georgia deserves to be at up stage center. The history of this southern city is full of theatrics, drama and comedy intermingled. You could write a whole series of plays about the goings-on in the Hostess City, beginning with its beginning.
Without Mary Musgrove, who was half-Creek and half-British, how would that chap from England, James Oglethorpe, ever have established the strong bond he developed with Tomochichi, mico of the Yamacraw tribe, when Oglethorpe arrived in Savannah in 1733 to "found" the new colony of Georgia? Musgrove was the interpreter for the two men and understood what each could gain from the other--and what she might gain from both!
Nobody else had such a miserable time in the early years of Savannah as John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. Not only did Tomochichi's tribe spurn his efforts to convert them to Christianity, but when he spurned a young lady, she turned up in church with a new husband. Wesley refused to give them communion, causing such outrage that he was forced to flee the city under the cover of darkness in 1737. Two hundred and thirty years later he received his sentence in absentia--a statue in Reynolds Square.
"He's a scoundrel and a lying rascal!" Those were dueling words in 1777. So when General Lachlan McIntosh (left) made that observation of Georgia Governor Button Gwinnett, the two met on an early morning on the outskirts of Savannah to settle the matter. McIntosh won the battle but Gwinnett the war: Gwinnett was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and because of the duel he died relatively young, leaving few signed documents. As a result, his autograph is one of the most treasured--and valuable--in the world. Also, he got a much larger gravesite in Colonial Park Cemetery than did his nemesis McIntosh.
"I rejoice in being whipped and would freely suffer death for the cause of Jesus Christ!" Those were the words of Andrew Bryan, the enslaved Savannah preacher accused of planning an insurrection in 1786, as he was bleeding profusely from the whipping he was receiving. Bryan was planning a revolution--but one of the spirit and he succeeded. By not backing down, he firmly established the Black church in Savannah once and for all--and it flourishes to this day.
Inspired by his muse, Caty Greene, Eli Whitney invented his version of the cotton gin on Mulberry Grove Plantation on the outskirts of Savannah in 1793. Did they foresee how the little engine that could would reinvigorate and spread slavery throughout the South?
The largest sale of enslaved people in American history took place at the Ten Broeck Racecourse near Savannah on March 2-3, 1859. "The Weeping Time," as it became known, may have been mostly forgotten had not a New York writer gone undercover to report the proceedings to a shocked northern readership. White Savannahians were also upset with the article, especially when the reporter called Savannah "this cruel city."
Northerners would be outraged all over again when the Wanderer affair unfolded in Savannah, featuring local bad boy Charley Lamar, who was determined to bring back the outlawed transatlantic slave trade, employing a retrofitted yacht (from New York, no less) to illegally import over 400 Africans. The resulting six trials in Savannah in 1859-1860 turned out to be a fiasco for the federal government and made Lamar a hero of the secession movement.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice James Moore Wayne, the hapless judge presiding over the Wanderer trials, had had his own Savannah exploits in his younger days. On the city council in 1817 he had drafted the law making it illegal to educate Black people and as mayor he sentenced someone for running a "school for Negroes." It turns out he fathered three children by one of the women that he owned and he secretly educated them, thereby breaking his own law.
On March 21, 1861 Vice President of the Confederacy Alexander H. Stephens gave his famous "Cornerstone of the Confederacy" speech at the Savannah Theatre. He proclaimed that "the Negro is not equal to the white man...slavery, subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition." After the Civil War, he claimed he had been misquoted.
Our first production (May 2022) puts the spotlight on one of Savannah's brightest stars. The girl who grew up here in the 1850's and '60's under the slave law of Georgia would become the first teacher of freed children, the first African-American nurse and the author of the only Civil War memoir written by a Black woman. That's why Susie King Taylor's time is--finally--now.
On January 12, 1865, at General William T. Sherman's Savannah headquarters, U.S. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton asked the local Black church leaders, "How can you best take care of yourselves?" It was the first time that the federal government wanted to find out what African-Americans needed for themselves. And when they responded, "We want to be placed on land until we can buy it and make it our own," that statement triggered the first attempt to achieve racial equity in American history.
Our History Theatre will be bringing these stories and others onto the stage in the years ahead. We hope you'll join us in these endeavors as a participant or a supporter.
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