Owens-Thomas House Marquis de Lafayette

The Owens-Thomas House Marquis de Lafayette historical marker was dedicated in 1954. View the Owens-Thomas House Marquis de Lafayette historical marker listing.


Historical Background

Created by SCAD student Darryl Wilkins as part of his SCAD art history department coursework, with guidance from art history professor Holly Goldstein, Ph.D., 2016.


Built between 1816 and 1819 by architect William Jay, the Owens-Thomas House stands as a monumental structure for the city and history of Savannah and its relationship with the history of slavery[i] ( Figure 1). Constructed with Grecian influence, the house’s exterior is a one-of-a kind design. Built for merchant Richard Richardson, cotton merchant and banker, , the home hosted nothing but the best interior that antebellum Savannah had to offer. Inside of the home (Figure 2), eleven false windows were added simply to accentuate the lavish style. False doors loom throughout the corridors, along with an indoor bridge that was a gateway to the other side of the mansion.

Notable visitors included General Lafayette who made his famous speech from the south balcony of the master bedroom in 1825. The house now functions as a museum and is owned and operated by the Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences.[ii] Margaret Gray Thomas (granddaughter of George W. Owens) left the home to the Telfair Academy after acquiring the home herself from the bank of the United States.

The Owens-Thomas slave quarters, which are located in the left corner behind the house and garden (Figure 3), were home to urban slaves when they were not assisting the family.[iii] The urban slaves were skilled workers (such as craftsman and seamstress) who worked throughout the city of Savannah tackling tasks that needed to be done in the city such as brick laying, sewing, and selling goods at the market. Painted on the ceiling is the original indigo color, a traditional color of West African culture,  that was used to keep evil spirits from entering the house (Figure 4). The slave quarters have been fully restored and are a contemporary site in which to experience slave living conditions.[iv] As skilled workers, most of the slaves worked inside of the home, as well as within the basement.

The Owens-Thomas basement housed America’s first major plumbing system, making it easier for the slaves to not only use the bathroom, but to also bathe and wash clothing. Occasionally, the plumbing was used for kitchen purposes. Inside the home, innovative hallways were built so that slaves could easily move throughout the house when working. Through the butler’s quarter, William Jay built a separate door on the back porch that allowed workers to enter and deliver food and other items to the butler’s kitchen. Inside the home, there is a “secret” hallway built between both dining areas that allowed the slaves to navigate without interrupting the owner’s household. Upstairs, one of the bedrooms housed a nanny’s quarters where the nanny slept to care for the children throughout the night.

Andrew C. Marshall (Figure 5) is one of the more notable figures related to the Owens-Thomas House and one of the first former slaves to navigate amongst the wealthy elite population during his time in Savannah.[v] Marshall was born in South Carolina around 1775 and was the son of an enslaved woman and a white overseer. Navigating most of his life as a slave child, it was not until 1778 that Marshall was bought and moved to Savannah by Governor John Houstoun.[vi] During 1812, Marshall was an active participate in the war and received compensation for his involvement, where he met General George Washington. Marshall later served as Washington’s personal servant during his visit to Savannah in 1791.

Merchant Richard Richardson purchased Marshall in 1812. Later, with the $200 given to him by Richardson, Marshall was able to purchase his own freedom with the condition (?) that Richardson act as his legal guardian.[vii] As a free man, Marshall built a home and a very successful hauling business that helped him gain a massive amount of wealth. Taking over as the lead pastor of the African Baptist Church in 1815, he changed the way that Black congregations were shaped. Baptizing nearly 3,800 people, converting 4,000, and marrying at least 2,000, Marshall’s influence as pastor began to grow.[viii]

Marshall was able to travel around the country to spread the gospel. In 1840, he issued and was granted, a set of funds to be used for mission trips to Liberia on the account of a resettlement for free Blacks. Challenging the authoritative figures in Savannah by purchasing illegal bricks from slaves, Marshall was often publically whipped, which further established the barriers of power between freedmen and the white population. In 1832, a split formed in Marshall’s congregation due to his support of Alexander Campbell, a controversial white minister.[ix] In 1856, Marshall passed away during  mission trip to Richmond, Virginia, leaving behind an enormous legacy in Savannah.[x]

[i] “Owens-Thomas House,” Telfair Museums. Accessed May 15, 2016. http://www.telfair.org/visit/owens-thomas/.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Tania Sammons, “Andrew Cox Marshall: Between Slavery and Freedom in Savannah” Accessed May 15, 2016. https://notevenpast.org/andrew-cox-marshall-between-slavery-and-freedom-in-savannah/.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Chuck Mobley, “Owens-Thomas House Retraces the Seams of Slavery,” Savannahnow.com. Accessed May 15, 2016. http://savannahnow.com/news/2007-09-16/owens-thomas-house-retraces-seams-slavery.

1. Owens Thomas House, Savannah, Ga. Cordrary Foltz collection. No.: 1360, Box/Vol.: 8 Folder: 17, Image: 01, Courtesy of Georgia Historical Society.

2. Owens Thomas House, Savannah, Ga. Cordrary Foltz collection. No.: 1360, Box/Vol.: 8 Folder: 17, Image: 03, Courtesy of Georgia Historical Society.

3. Owens-Thomas House, 2016. Courtesy of Darryl Wilkins Jr.

Figure 4– Southern Pine Company. “Reclaimed Antique Pine: Haint Blue” RSS. http://www.southernpinecompany.com/blog/2016/1/13/haint-blue-porch-ceiling-reclaimed-wood.

5. Tania Sammons, “Andrew Cox Marshall: Between Slavery and Freedom in Savannah” https://notevenpast.org/andrew-cox-marshall-between-slavery-and-freedom-in-savannah/.

6. Owens Thomas House, Savannah, Ga. Cordrary Foltz collection. No.: 1360, Box/Vol.: 8 Folder: 17, Image: 04, Courtesy of Georgia Historical Society.

7. Owens Thomas House, Savannah, Ga. Cordrary Foltz collection. No.: 1360, Box/Vol.: 8 Folder: 17, Image: 12, Courtesy of Georgia Historical Society.

8. Owens Thomas House, Savannah, Ga. Cordrary Foltz collection. No.: 1360, Box/Vol.: 8 Folder: 17, Image: 13, Courtesy of Georgia Historical Society.

9. Owens Thomas House, Savannah, Ga. Cordrary Foltz collection. No.: 1360, Box/Vol.: 19 Folder: 08, Image: 01, Courtesy of Georgia Historical Society.

10. Owens Thomas House, Savannah, Ga. BD Dwellings-Saulh-Owens-Thomas. No.: 1360, Box/Vol.: 1, Image: 453, Courtesy of Georgia Historical Society.

11. Owens Thomas House, Savannah, Ga. William Wilson Album. No.: 1360, Box/Vol.: 8 Folder: 17, Image: 04, Courtesy of Georgia Historical Society.

12. Owens-Thomas House Marker Text, 2016. Courtesy of Darryl Wilkins Jr.


Further Reading

Tania Sammons, “Andrew Cox Marshall: Between Slavery and Freedom in Savannah,” https://notevenpast.org/andrew-cox-marshall-between-slavery-and-freedom-in-savannah/.

Chuck Mobley, “Owens-Thomas House Retraces the Seams of Slavery,” http://savannahnow.com/news/2007-09-16/owens-thomas-house-retraces-seams-slavery.

“Owens-Thomas House” Telfair Museums, http://www.telfair.org/visit/owens-thomas/.