Johnson Square

The Johnson Square historical marker was dedicated in 1955. View the Johnson Square historical marker listing.


Historical Background

Created by SCAD student Clarissa Santos as part of her SCAD art history department coursework, with guidance from art history professor Holly Goldstein, Ph.D., 2016.


The sale began—young girls were there,

Defenseless in their wretchedness,

Whose stifled sobs of deep despair

Revealed their anguish and distress.

And mothers stood, with streaming eyes,

And saw their dearest children sold;

Unheeded rose their bitter cries,

While tyrants bartered them for gold.[i]

The oldest public space in town, Johnson Square was laid out in 1733 by Savannah’s founder, James Oglethorpe, and Colonel William Bull of South Carolina. It is visible in the 1734 map of Savannah generally attributed to Peter Gordon (Figures 1-2).[ii] The square is named after South Carolina Governor Robert Johnson, who supported the colonists during Savannah’s colonial period. The site has hosted many glorious historical events, such as funerals, famous speeches, and even a ball. In the middle of the square lies a 50-foot white marble obelisk built in 1830 in the honor of Major General Nathanael Greene (1742-1786), a Revolutionary War hero as seen in the 1837 Joseph Louis Fermin Cerveau painting (Figure 3). However, Johnson Square was also an important center of the profitable local slave trading district.[iii]

By the time Savannah was founded in the early 1730s, slavery was banned in accordance with Oglethorpe’s Enlightenment ideals in an attempt to favor the small farms owned by ordinary British immigrants in spite of the large plantation system. Oglethorpe, however, also requested and received enslaved laborers from South Carolina to help build the city.[iv] Georgia was the only colony to “ban” slavery, but it was difficult to enforce and uphold the ban. Colonists wrote petitions to the Trustees requesting the legalization of  slavery. Peter Gordon reflected a common thought during the period when he wrote, “It is morally impossible that the people of Georgia can ever get forward in their settlements or even be a degree above common slaves, without the help and assistance of Negroes.”[v] Slavery became officially accepted in 1750, however, it was already a crucial part of the city’s economy.

In 1753, Georgia was returned to the British crown from the Trustees, and Savannah was a complete slave-based economy. Enslaved African Americans worked on plantations with the main crops of the lowcountry, such as rice, indigo, and sea island cotton. They also worked as house servants in urban areas, which meant better living conditions. Besides providing the main workforce, the slave trade was also a prosperous business. As shown in figure 4,  Savannah hosted Cowper and , a mercantile firm which was the largest importer of enslaved Africans in Georgia. The Africans were usually displaced from Senegambia, Sierra Leone, Angola, Windward Coast, and the Gold Coast.[vi] On the verge of the Revolutionary War (1775-1783), Georgia colonists were strongly against attempts of embargoing the British slave trade. They were extremely dependent on slavery as a main workforce and as the port through which transatlantic slaves would arrive.[vii] Taking advantage of the turmoil that succeeded the Revolutionary War, many slaves ran away and founded maroon communities in rural areas around Savannah. The maroon communities did not last long because planters could not afford to live without the slavery system, and these communities were a menace to the colonists’ status quo. The American Revolution was an opportunity for freedom for many enslaved people, and that led to many thrilling runaway stories. Free blacks were called “free persons of color.”There are some published accounts of black authors from the eighteenth-century, such as Olaudah Equiano (Figure 5), who captures his life as a slave and later as an abolitionist.[viii]  In the nineteenth-century, the slave-based cotton economy was a huge success. Savannah was the third largest antebellum cotton exporter of the South. Indigo and rice were still being produced, and the prime location of the city with the port helped the economy thrive.

Savannah’s slave trade had an extremely organized structure. In the eighteenth-century, hundreds of enslaved people from Africa and the Caribbean arrived at the city’s harbor. At first, they were quarantined at Lazaretto Creek on Tybee Island (Lazaretto is Italian for pesthouse), and then they were taken into the city to be sold and distributed. In the nineteenth-century, the importation of slaves was banned in the United States, and Savannah had to make some new adjustments. Eventually, the city was a central depot for the domestic slave trade. By 1850, Savannah had a lucrative slave trade based industry, the second largest in the country after the state of Virginia, and a cornerstone of the local economy. All local main institutions were involved and dependent upon slavery. In this quote by the city’s mayor, Dr. Richard D. Arnold, it is easy to understand the importance of the slave trade for the city in the antebellum period, “Life, and property, safety and security [depended on the preservation of slavery]so intimately is it mingled with our social conditions, so deeply has it taken root… that it would be impossible to eradicate without upturning the foundations [of southern society].”[ix]In 1860, one third of Savannahians were slaves. The slave trade business structure in Savannah was built around more than twenty brokers and auctioneers, holding yards, and slave marts. It was also supported by lawyers, notaries, bankers, doctors, and insurance agents.[x] Figure 6 depicts a receipt from the well-organized local slave trade institution. Johnson Square faced Bay Lane, which was the heart of the slave district in Savannah (Figure 7). No less than a dozen brokers and nine banks were located in the area. In antebellum Savannah, individuals seeking to purchase slaves from William Wright (figure 9), Joseph Bryan’s slave jail, or W.C. Dawson and Edmond M. Blount’s slave mart traveled to the city and stayed in the famous Pulaski House Hotel (Figure 8)[xi]  on the corner of Bull and Bryan streets.

William Wright owned the largest slave mart and holding yard in Savannah and possibly in Georgia. Located at 76 Bryan Street, facing Johnson Square, the facility could hold up to 250 people (Figure 10). The yard is long gone, but the building adjacent to the yard, Hamilton House, is still there facing the square on 24-26 Bryan Street (Figure 11). It was used as an office for lawyers who supported the Wright, Bryan, and Dawson’s and Blount’s slave markets. City Market Area, a few blocks away, was another important home to the slave trading district.[xii]

The Civil War finally put an end to slavery in 1865. However, the prolific slave trade industry continued daily until Savannah was captured by General William T. Sherman. At the Second African American Baptist Church, from Sherman’s crew explained to freedmen that they should take possession of abandoned lands along the coast. Thus began the slow journey towards race equality after slavery (Figures 12-29).[xiii]

More recently, Savannah’s main source of revenue is tourism, and unfortunately, histories about slavery (especially if placed in major touristic sites such as Johnson Square) are hidden. Yet, history, no matter how uncomfortable it might be, should always be revealed, acknowledged, and discussed in order to be overcome, and slavery is no exception.


[i] “The Slave Auction” by Francis Hellen Watkins Harper (1825-1911).  Born in Baltimore, poet, fiction writer, journalist, and activist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was the only child of free African American parents. She attended the Academy for Negro Youth, a school run by her uncle, until the age of 13, and then found domestic work in a Quaker household, where she had access to a wide range of literature. After teaching for two years in Ohio and Pennsylvania, she embarked on a career as a traveling speaker on the abolitionist circuit. She helped slaves escape through the Underground Railroad and wrote frequently for anti-slavery newspapers, earning her a reputation as the mother of African American journalism. Accessed May 22, 2016. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/47686.

[ii] George F. Jones, Peter Gordon’s plan of Savannah, The Georgia Historical Quarterly Vol. 70, No. 1 (Spring, 1986), pp. 97-101. Accessed May 22, 2016. http://0-www.jstor.org.library.scad.edu/stable/40581469

[iii] Barry Sheehy, Vaughnette Goode-Walker, and Cindy Wallace, Savannah Immortal City: an Epic IV Volume History: a City & People that forged a living link between America, Past, and Present (Civil War Savannah), vol. 1 (Cleveland: Emerald Book Company, 2011), 57.

[iv] Leslie M. Harris, and Daina Ramey Berry, Slavery and freedom in Savannah (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2014), 15.

[v] Preston Russell and Barbara Hines, Savannah: A History of Her People since 1733 (Savannah: Frederic C. Beil, 1992), 16.

[vi] Philip Morgan, African American Life in the Georgia Lowcountry: The Atlantic World and the Gullah Geechee (Race in the Atlantic World, 1700-1900) (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011), Gallery of illustrations.

[vii] Harris, 17.

[viii] Morgan, 5.

[ix] Barry Sheehy, Vaughnette Goode-Walker, and Cindy Wallace, Savannah: Brokers, Bankers, and Bay Lane inside the Slave Trade, vol. 2 (Cleveland: Emerald Book Company, 2012), 3.

[x] Ibid., 16.

[xi] Vaughnette Goode-Walker, Footprints of Savannah Walking Tour, Savannah, GA, April 25, 2016.

[xii] Ibid., 63.

[xiii] Ibid., 129-132.

1. Peter Gordon map of Savannah, 1734. Johnson Square is the area indicated by the red circle. Courtesy of Hargrett Rare Documents Library, University of Georgia.

2. Peter Gordon map of Savannah, 1734, detail, Johnson Square. According to the map, numbers 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10 correspond respectively to the public mill, the house for strangers, the public bake oven, the draw well, the lot for the church, and the public stores. Courtesy of Hargrett Rare Documents Library, University of Georgia.

3. Joseph Louis Firman Cerveau, view of Savannah, 1837, painting on paper, Georgia Historical Society. Jonhson Square and Major General Nathanael Greene’s monument.  Courtesy of the Georgia Historical Society.

4. Several common advertisements for enslaved people: Cowper and Telfairs firm slave sales, run away announcements, and Brought to the Work House section, from the Georgia Gazette, 1773-1774. Courtesy of the Georgia Historical Society.

5. This portrait of Olaudah Equiano was used as the frontispiece of his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, The African (1789). Courtesy of The Board of Trustees of the National Museums & Galleries on Merseyside, Merseyside Maritime Museum.

6. Slave purchase receipt from the brokers Meinhard Bros., 1863. Francis, age 14 was sold for US$ 3,000. Courtesy of Georgia Historical Society.

7. Walking Tour Map of Savannah bankers and brokers as located circa 1860 to 1864. From Barry Sheehy et al. Savannah: Brokers, Bankers, and Bay Lane inside the Slave Trade, vol. 2. Cleveland: Emerald Book Company, 2012. Page 32.

8. The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. “Pulaski House,” 1865. New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed May 22, 2016. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e0-5812-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

9. William Wright’s ledger, 1853-1876. Courtesy of Georgia Historical Society.

10. Bay Lane as seen from A. Ruger’s 1871 Bird’s Eye View of the City of Savannah. From Barry Sheehy et al. Savannah: Brokers, Bankers, and Bay Lane inside the Slave Trade, vol. 2. Cleveland: Emerald Book Company, 2012. Page 53.

11. Hamilton House, built in the nineteenth-century. Courtesy of Clarissa Santos.

12. The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. “Bird’s eye view of Bull Street,” 1880. New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed May 22, 2016. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e0-56e4-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

13. Savannah Aerial view from the City Hall, Johnson Square, 1990-1920. Valentine & Sons’ Publishing Co. Ltd., New York, Printed in Great Britain. Courtesy of SCAD Jen Library.

14. Johnson Square, 2016. Courtesy of Clarissa Santos

15. Bay Lane, 2016. Courtesy of Clarissa Santos.

16. Georgia Historical Society Marker, Nathanael Greene Monument, Johnson Square, 2016. Courtesy of Clarissa Santos.

17. Marker for the Public Oven and the House of Strangers, Johnson Square, 2016. Courtesy of Clarissa Santos.

18. Marker for the Public Stores, Johnson Square, 2016. Courtesy of Clarissa Santos.

19. Johnson Square landscape, 2016. Courtesy of Clarissa Santos.


Further Reading

Jonathan M. Bryant, How Curious a Land: Conflict and Change in Greene County, Georgia, 1850-1880 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996).

Anthony Gene Carey, Parties, Slavery, and the Union in Antebellum Georgia (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1997).

W.E.B. Du Bois, The Suppression of the American Slave Trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870 (Mineola, NY: Dover, 1999).

William Dusinberre, Them Dark Days: Slavery in the American Rice Swamps (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2000).

David Eltis, Stephen D. Behrendt, David Richardson, and Herbert S. Klein, The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade: a Database on CD-ROM (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

Timothy Lockley, Lines in the Sand: Race and Class in the Lowcountry Georgia, 1750-1860 (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2001).

_____________, “Slaveholders and Slaves in Savannah’s 1860 Census.” Urban History, 41 (2014): 647 – 663.

Keri MacDonald, E. G. Daves Rossell, Robin Williams, David Gobel, and Savannah College of Art and Design, “Department of Architecture. Slavery, freedom, space and architecture: The role of carriage houses as slave quarters in Savannah, Georgia.” Masters’ thesis, Savannah College of Art and Design, 2000.

Richard McMillan, “The Coastal Slave Trade in Savannah: A Quantitative Analysis of Ship Manifests, 1840-1850” The Georgia Historical Quarterly 78 (1994): 339-359.

David Northrup, The Atlantic Slave Trade (Lexington, MA: D.C. Health, 1994).

Paul M. Pressly, On the Rim of the Caribbean: Colonial Georgia and the British Atlantic World (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2013).

Joseph P. Reidy, From Slavery to Agrarian Capitalism in the Cotton Plantation South: Central Georgia, 1800-1880 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992).

Julia Floyd Smith, Slavery and Rice Culture in Low Country Georgia, 1750-1860 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1985).

Mart A. Stewart, “What Nature Suffers to Groe”: Life, Labor, and Landscape on the Georgia Coast, 1680-1920 (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2002).

Betty Wood, Slavery in Colonial Georgia, 1730-1775 (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1984. 2002).

__________, Women’s Work, Men’s Work: The Informal Slave Economies of Lowcountry Georgia (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1995).

Jeffrey Robert Young, Domesticating Slavery: The Master Class in Georgia and South Carolina, 1670-1837 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999).