Whitefield Square in Savannah Georgia
Whitefield Square, located on Habersham Street between Taylor and Gordon Streets, is certainly easy on the eyes. Large live oaks provide shelter and shade for all who stroll through the Square itself, and positioned all around Whitefield are beautiful Victorian-era gingerbread houses. Certainly no other square in Savannah captures quite the same level of charm and fairytale-esque flare as Whitefield does. Even the 1870s gazebo at the center of the green is the perfect place for weddings and happy gatherings (not to mention a pretty form of shelter from any impending rain).
But Whitefield Square, small as it is, carries the weight of a lot of history. Not in just its name, but also in the land itself.
How did Whitefield Square Get Its Name?
Despite the fact that Whitefield Square was only added in 1851, and was actually the last of Savannah’s squares to be laid out, its name honors an 18th century immigrant from England. The Reverend George Whitefield had arrived in the British-Colonies early on, around the 1730s. An Anglian, Whitefield was a man of God who sought to spread the word of the Church to all who would listen. He was an excellent oral speaker, known to rally people and enthuse them with just his speeches. But in rallying the masses, Whitefield was also known to spark as much controversy as he did discussion.
The Man Who Sparked the First Great Awakening
Reverend Whitefield is most commonly referred to as the man who truly kicked off America's First Great Awakening. Whitefield focused mainly on the topic of “rebirth” and truly pushed the idea that not everyone was predestined for the lower bowels of Hell. In fact, he argued, anyone could ascend into the welcoming arms of Heaven with constant repention of one’s sins and dedicated prayer. Whitefield became the fourth minister in the British-Colonies, the second rector of the Christ Episcopal Church in Savannah and the founder of the Bethesda Orphanage in 1740 (click here to read more about the orphanage).
The Reverend Whitefield also spent a lot of time criticizing slaveholders for treating their slaves much too poorly, and for giving them little to no education. This did not mean, however, that Whitefield believed in the abolishment of slavery. In actuality, he not only lobbied (and won) to have slavery reinstated in Georgia, but he then became a slaveholder himself.
But with notoriety comes influence. Whitefield could thank Benjamin Franklin for both. Franklin was a huge supporter of Whitefield, despite the fact that he himself was a Deist and spent little time in the pews at church. Still, Franklin appreciated how Whitefield could endear so many people to him and how he started such a movement. In his publication, the Gazette, Franklin then published countless of Whitefield’s sermons on the front page; nearly 45 issues of the Gazette were dedicated in some capacity to pushing Whitefield’s beliefs and practices.
Franklin would ultimately remain Whitefield’s friend until Whitefield's death at the end of the 18th century. Whitefield’s work and dedication to spreading the word of God remained ever influential, enough, at least, that nearly fifty years after his death, the city of Savannah decided to name a Square after him.
The Hidden History on Which We Walk
Although it is easy to assume that what we see today has always stood or existed in that same spot, cities are founded upon various layers of construction and policies. Buildings are demolished and new ones put into place; waterways are dredged for subsequent landfills. Whitefield Square is no different, and has certainly not escaped the passage of time.
Read below to discover the Whitefield Square not visible today.
The First Congregational Church
Overlooking Whitefield Square is the First Congregational Church at 421 Habersham Street. The gothic-style First Congregational Church that stands on the lot today was built in 1895, though it is not the first church to have been built on this particular plot of land. The original church was constructed in 1869 and was intended for New England Congregationalists who had migrated to the South in order to teach freed slaves at Savannah’s Beach Institute.
The Institute employed countless of people (mostly women) from the north and at one time, had nearly 600 students enrolled. Later, in 1875, it would be given to the Savannah Board of Education to become a free public school for African-Americans. For a period of years, the school saw great success; but as time went on, other schools in the area were built and the classrooms at the former Beach Institute slowly lost students as children began to enroll elsewhere. The Beach Institute officially shut its doors in 1919 when enrollment dramatically fell.
Today, the First Congregational Church is certainly worth a visit as you meander through Whitefield Square.
The Old Burial Ground
It seems impossible the manicured space of Whitefield Square might have once been an old African-American burial ground, but it’s true. Today, little archaeological evidence on the surface of Whitefield’s darker past, though records and documentations demonstrate a much different story than pretty gazebos and charming Victorian homes.
During the early 18th century, there was almost no protocol as to where slaves and freed African-Americans could be buried. Though most were buried in backyards or wherever there was an open plot of land, none were buried in the major cemetery plots. By 1789, the General Assembly sought to rectify this—somewhat, at least.
Countless city-wide ordinances were passed that established proper burial grounds for African-Americans. They were historically termed, “Old Negro Burial Grounds,” and were located all throughout the outskirts of Savannah’s then-city center. Despite the movement, these laws were blatantly ignored all the way until 1813 when yet another mandate was passed reiterating the 1789 law.
From 1813-1853, these specific grounds would be used within the city for African-Americans who were enslaved and also for those who were free. But in 1852, the Council acquired the Springfield Plantation and converted the land into what is now known as the Old Colonial Park Cemetery. All citizens of Savannah were to be interred in the new area; in 1853, Whitefield Square was laid out right over one of the old burial grounds.
Two separate excavations were completed during that period, in which the bodies of Reverend Andrew Bryan, the founder of the First African Baptist Church, and the Reverend Henry Cunningham, the pastor of the Savannah Baptist Church and Second African Baptist Church, were unearthed and reburied in Laurel Grove South. Although a few other bodies were exhumed along with Bryan and Cunningham, only matching tombstones and headstones were installed at Laurel Grove South, the bodies of these other African-Americans were not once more interred.
Below Whitefield Square today remains what archaeologists and historians figure must be hundreds of other remains of African-Americans who were buried there and were never moved to Old Colonial Cemetery or Laurel Grove Cemetery.
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