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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)

Lafayette Square

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Lafayette Square, on the intersection of Abercorn and Macon, is named in honor of the Marquis de Lafayette, the French aristocrat who became a major Revolutionary War hero and impressed Savannah with a speech delivered from the balcony of the Owens Thomas House.

Lafayette Square Savannah

Surrounding the square are a number of interesting buildings, including 1839’s Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, the biggest Catholic church in the region. The city’s Catholic population had to wait for a long time, for a proper cathedral — Savannah was founded over a hundred years prior. But don’t forget that for the first phase of its history, this city was so suspicious of Catholics, and their possible ties to Spanish Florida, that the religion had been banned.

On the western side of the square is the Andrew Low House. Andrew’s feisty daughter-in-law Juliette would found the Girl Scouts in this property’s carriage house, unwittingly releasing the horror of Thin Mints on future generations. If only she had lived to see what she had wrought! Directly across the square we find the Hamilton Turner Inn, an elegant hotel with individually named and decorated rooms. It was the first house in Savannah with electricity, and gained infamy after falling under the care of Joe Odom, the party man so colorfully depicted in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

Another house of note is the childhood home of Flannery O’Connor, on the southern side of the square at 207 East Charlton Street. The famous author spent her first 13 years of life, and it’s hard to imagine that Savannah’s Southern Gothic atmosphere, along with her house’s location across from the Catholic church, didn’t have a major influence on her writing. The home can be visited by appointment.

Location on our Savannah Map

The Cathedral of St. John the Baptist – Website
Andrew Low House – Website
Hamilton-Turner Inn – Website
Flannery O’Connor’s Childhood Home – Website

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December 8, 2010 at 6:09 pm Comments (5)
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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