This comment is from Aberjhani, an author, artist, US Air Force Veteran and native of Savannah.
The people of Savannah can be particularly pleased with the unanimous vote by the Savannah City Council to remove the name of former US Vice President and slave owner John C. Calhoun (1782-1850) from a downtown plaza. The council’s proactive move has less to do with trying to “fix” history and more to do with balancing representation and encouraging sanity in the present.
The unanimous vote comes in sharp contrast to the Georgia state legislature’s steadfast refusal to remove the name of former governor and white supremacist Eugene Talmadge (1884-1946) from the beautiful bridge over the Savannah River.
When I first met the late civil rights and human rights leader Westley Wallace (WW) Law (1923-2002) many years ago, he lobbied for the East Broad Street School to be renamed the Robert S. Abbott Elementary School. At the time, he knew very little about the history-shaping Great Migration or Harlem Renaissance
It took a few years in the last century before I understood why Law was so interested in this subject.
Calhoun Square name change:Right idea, wrong way
Letters to the editor:Plea to keep Calhoun’s name in place while Council prepares to vote
I recently had a conversation with a group of writers about how little many Savannahians seemed to know, based on what we had experienced and observed, about how much the city or its native sons and daughters have influenced history beyond Georgia , but but America’s and the world. Rev. Raphael G. Warnock’s election to the US Senate in 2020 and his runoff against Herschel Walker in 2022 are exciting exceptions to awareness.
It was something I discussed via email with the late Jane Fishman. We felt it was important enough to start by compiling African American names that fit the category.
One such notable name, I suggest, is that of Robert Sengstacke Abbott (1870-1940).
Who was Robert Abbott?
A historical marker dedicated to Abbott, courtesy of the city and the Georgia Historical Society, is located at West Bay and Albion streets.
The marker recognizes how Abbott’s stepfather, John HH Sengstacke, taught him the printing trade and how Abbott later developed his skills to found in 1905: “…the Chicago Defender, a newspaper that revolutionized African-American journalism. He fought to abolish the Jim Crow laws and establish a non-discriminatory society. The Defender played an important role in initiating the Great Migration of Nations (1915-1919)….”
However, only so much information can be placed on a marker. Word count is too few to explain the extraordinary impact Abbott’s newspaper had on the phenomenal success of what we call the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. Nor is it sufficient to detail the publisher’s beginnings on St. Simons Island, or the traditions of philanthropy he established, which have benefited blacks and whites alike.
How all of this ties Savannah to the Great Northern Migration and the Harlem Renaissance, which is now being celebrated around the world, is of particular importance given the potential it holds for Georgia’s booming film industry.
Abbott’s former home in Chicago is now a national landmark. In 2017, artist Kevin Pullen unveiled a sculpture called Abbott and His Boys as a tribute to the great publisher and to celebrate Gullah Geechee Heritage Day on St Simons Island.
Several volumes have been published in recent years documenting the importance of his legacy; literary rumor has it that one prominent local historian is hard at work on another.
Nearly two decades ago, I was fortunate to participate in a project that resulted in an appearance on a morning news show, where I spoke with WSAV’s Kim Gusby and corporate trainer and poet Iris Formey-Dawson about Abbott’s historical significance.
Right now seems like an excellent time for the citizens of Savannah to renew that conversation. It’s one that I have no doubt WW Law would have encouraged.