REST WITH HONOR SAVANNAH
Interview with initiative founder Lauri Lyons
Rest with Honor Savannah Logo, courtesy of Lauri Lyons
We at the Savannah African Art Museum support the Rest with Honor Savannah Initiative. This initiative is centered around Savannah’s African/Negro Burial Grounds located at Calhoun & Whitfield Squares, which were named after two strong advocates of Slavery.
We believe that these squares should be acknowledged as a historical burial ground and the resting place for these ancestors. We support that these squares should be acknowledged and renamed to as a way of honoring those who rest on these sacred grounds.
Below see our interview with the Rest with Honor Initiative Founder, Lauri Lyons, and SAAM Education Coordinator, Lisa Jackson.
Interview between SAAM Education Coordinator, Lisa Jackson,
and Rest with Honor Initiative Founder, Lauri Lyons.
About the Initiative
Rest With Honor is a not-for-profit organization that merges communities, technology, and culture for the purpose of social justice and cultural preservation. Lauri Lyons is the Executive Director.
For over 20 years Lauri's work has explored the influence of American culture and the African Diaspora, within a global framework. She is the author of two acclaimed books; Flag: An American Story (2001), Flag International (2008), and the photographer for the book INSPIRATION: Profiles of Black Women Changing Our World (2012).
Lauri Lyons, Founder of the Rest With Honor Initiative
Lauri Lyons is also the Publisher & Editor in Chief of Nomads Magazine and a contributing writer for The Huffington Post. Lauri has served as a faculty member and guest lecturer for many institutions including the International Center of Photography, New School for Social Research and the Rhode Island School of Design. Her work has been widely exhibited and published.
Rest with Honor Savannah, is a historical social justice initiative working to commemorate an unmarked colonial 'Negro / African Burying Ground' located in the center of Savannah, Georgia. The burial ground was designated in 1763 and is now 258 years old.
In 1732 Georgia was founded as a "no slavery" colony. In 1751 Georgia overturned its ban on slavery and began importing enslaved labor from West Africa and the Caribbean. The plantations and the enslaved people that worked on them created the foundation of the American economy.
Additional slave labor included African-Americans who were owned by the City of Savannah or “rented out" by their Master. “Free” people of color were required by law to work for the City one day a week for free.
From 1763 - 1850 the Negro / African Burial Ground was the only place Black people were legally allowed to be buried in Savannah.
In 1850 the City of Savannah closed the Negro / African Burying Ground and redesigned the space as two public squares (parks) - without moving the buried bodies.
One of the squares was named Whitefield Square in honor of Reverend George Whitefield, who was one of the founders of the Methodist church and one of the primary people responsible for overturning Georgia’s ban on slavery.
The other square was named Calhoun Square in honor of John C. Calhoun, the fierce pro-slavery Vice President of the United States and the Confederate icon responsible for creating the philosophy of State’s Rights, nullification and secession from the Union.
In 2017, Lauri Lyons extensive historical research and detective work unearthed the present-day location of the burial ground. She was able to obtain a Georgia Bureau of Investigation forensic report about a colonial slave skull found at the site. The Savannah Municipal Archives signed an official research statement, confirming that the City only has records of two bodies exhumed from the burial ground.
The Burial Ground
The 1818 Stouf Map is one of the oldest maps of Savannah that illustrates the early location of the 'Negro Burial Ground'. The Stouf map indicates the names of streets intersecting and surrounding the burial ground.
T'shari White, a geographer and environmental scientist, compared vintage and current maps of Savannah. She certified the burial ground area is a match.
It is important to note that the 'Negro / African Burial Ground' was never enclosed by a gate, fence, or wall. Due to institutional racism the burial ground was not properly maintained or documented by the City of Savannah.
Some historians believe the burial ground extended beyond the borders illustrated on the map. It is argued that Whitefield Square, Calhoun Square (the Eastern Trust Lots section) and the space in between the squares, were all a part of the 'Negro / African Burial Ground'. These areas are within a 2 - 3 minute walking distance from each other.
In 2004, utility workers discovered a colonial era skull buried four feet below the ground. The skull was located on the property of the Massie Cultural Heritage Center which is directly adjacent to Calhoun Square. The skull was analyzed by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
In 2020, Lauri Lyons and Dr. Williamson, a Georgia Southern University professor, obtained the Georgia Bureau of Investigation report. Dr. Williamson, a forensic scientist, reviewed the report and concluded "It is my opinion that it is entirely possible that this skull could belong to someone of African descent."
Negro Burial Ground marked by red box, courtesy of the City of Savannah Municipal Archives
The Negro / African Burial Ground in Savannah was designated in 1763 and was closed in 1850. The burial ground was the only place Black people were legally allowed to be buried. In 1850 the burial ground was redesigned as Whitefield Square and Calhoun Square.
The Savannah Municipal Archives only has records of (2) bodies that were removed from the burial ground during the city's expansion into the graveyard.
Image of Whitefield Square, courtesy of the Savannah African Art Museum
Image of Calhoun Square, courtesy of the Savannah African Art Museum
Image of Calhoun and Whitefield Squares,
courtesy of Google Maps