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First African Baptist Church

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Found on Franklin Square, the First African Baptist Church is the oldest black church in North America. Founded by slaves in 1775, it has a history nearly as old as Savannah itself.

First African Baptist Church

From the outside, the church isn’t terribly impressive, but that changes once you step indoors. The interior is beautiful, with curved pews pointing towards the pulpit and a pair of upper balconies for busy days. The church was built by the charity and volunteer efforts of slaves who, as you might imagine, didn’t have much extra money or free time. But over the course of four years, they got the job done, coming straight from their regular labor to work through the night on the construction of this church.

Our tour was fascinating, and our guide seemed to have a never-ending series of anecdotes, which demonstrated that the First African Baptist Church was much more than it seemed.

For example, the church was built with a secret floor underneath its real floor, and operated as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Never discovered by authorities, the crawlspace hid hundreds of runaway slaves and a tunnel led them from the church to the Savannah River. To mask their true purpose, the floor’s breathing holes were bored in the shape of the Kongo Cosmogram: an African spiritual symbol often used by American slaves.

Kongo Cosmogram

Another secret in the church is found in its ceiling, which looks rather plain at first glance, like waffle squares. But theses squares represent the Nine-Patch Quilts, which served as beacons for indicating safe houses to slaves on the run, and so the ceiling is a clever tribute to the church’s hidden humanitarian purpose.

Also, on the ends of each pew, all of which are original and date back hundreds of years, the wavy lines of cursive Hebrew have been scratched into the wood. Our guide wasn’t able to translate any of the words, but he did tell us that a few Ethiopian tourists had visited recently and instantly recognized it. Apparently, it’s still used by Jewish communities in Africa.

Kongo Cosmograms, Underground Railroad Patchwork, Cursive Hebrew… now this is the kind of unexpected history which totally interests me! If you’re the same, make sure to visit the First African Baptist Church, either for the tour or for the Sunday service.

First African Baptist Church – Website
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January 14, 2011 at 1:31 pm Comments (7)

Greene Square

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Named after revolutionary hero Nathaniel Greene, whose monument and burial site is at Johnson Square, Greene Square was laid out in the 1790s and developed into the center of Savannah’s black population. With a number of beautiful homes encircling it, it’s one of the city’s more enchanting squares.

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The Second African Baptist Church on the northeast side of Greene Square was built in 1802. Though destroyed by a fire and rebuilt in 1925, it retains much of its original interior, such as its benches, chairs and pulpit. This is where General Sherman famously promised to provide each freed slave “40 acres and a mule” after the Civil War.

Pay attention for signs around Greene Square, which reveal the original street names. President Street was originally King Street, and Congress Street was once called Prince Street. (After the American Revolution, we didn’t have any desire to continue honoring the monarchy.) Other signs provide information about Greene Square’s homes. The house on 521 East York Street was built from the famous Savannah gray bricks of the Hermitage Plantation, and at 124 Houston, there’s an early 19th-century wood and stucco house built by Isaiah Davenport; one of the prominent architect’s few remaining structures in Savannah.

Greene Square itself has no monuments or fountains, but is rich in contrast. And its charming houses make it one of the must-see squares in Savannah.

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January 9, 2011 at 7:02 pm Comments (3)
First African Baptist Church Found on Franklin Square, the First African Baptist Church is the oldest black church in North America. Founded by slaves in 1775, it has a history nearly as old as Savannah itself.
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