Savannah’s Amazing Grace

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In his scheme for the colony, Oglethorpe banned rum, lawyers, papists, and slavery. All four crept in before long. The founder’s edict against slavery wasn’t based on idealism, as some suppose. One biographer, Phinizy Spalding, calls him a “Negrophobe” who was fearful of slave insurrections. Despite the initial prohibition, Georgia’s black population grew rapidly, reaching nearly 50 percent of the total by 1880. The earliest black congregation in North America was founded in Savannah in 1775 and named the First African Baptist Church. Its present quarters, dating from 1859, are well worth a visit. The finely proportioned gray stuccoed brick building seemed closed when I approached. I had started to walk away when the door opened and the deacon, Harry James, invited me in. Upstairs, in the balcony, Mr. James pointed out original pews carved by slaves, each signed with a faint wavy mark that, it is thought, represents the maker’s African tribal name. Throughout, the church is eloquent with a spirit of calm and purpose that must have served its congregation well in stormy times.

When I mentioned that I was going to Savannah, a friend damned with faint praise. “It’s spotty,” he said. “There are lovely old buildings, and then next door is a garage or a boxlike bank.” It’s true enough. Sometimes there’s even a distinctive smell from the nearby paper mill, although a multi-million-dollar cleanup is planned. Oddly, none of this detracts. Instead, “spotty” creates an edge, reminds us of what’s at stake—what can still be lost, or won.

At least a thousand major buildings were saved, sold to homesteaders, renovated, and lived in once more.

What the seven women of Savannah and their allies fought to save for all of us is a city of uncommon grace. By all means, follow the walking-tour maps or sign up for bus tours. But leave time too for the small discoveries.

The guided tours go past Pulaski Square. It was the city’s first full-scale neighborhood restoration, and it is gorgeous. Absent from the bus tour is West Jones Street, one block south. Here some of the best of Savannah came together for me accidentally, during a stroll in search of lunch. (The Crystal Beer Parlor turned out to be an excellent recommendation by a street-side gardener.) West Jones seems to linger in the 1850s and 1860s, its brickwork and stucco a soft blend of peach and rose. Its exuberant cast-iron railings throw arabesque shadows against old walls and flowering hedges of pink and white grow thick and tall. The trees almost meet overhead. And in the quiet there is birdsong. To an astonishing degree this is the town William Makepeace Thackeray saw in 1855: “a tranquil old city, wide-streeted, tree-planted ... no tearing Northern hustle, no ceaseless hotel racket, no crowds.”

—Carla Davidson TO PLAN A TRIP