SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — Georgia’s oldest city, steeped in history predating the American Revolution, made a historic break with its slavery-era past Thursday as Savannah’s city council voted to rename a downtown square in honor of a Black woman who taught formerly enslaved people to read and write.
Susie King Taylor is the first person of color whose name will adorn one of Savannah’s 23 squares. It’s the first time in 140 years that Savannah has approved a name change for one of the picturesque, park-like squares that are treasured features of the original plan for the city founded in 1733.
“It’s one thing to make history. It’s something else to make sense. And in this case, we’re making both,” Savannah Mayor Van Johnson said. He noted that five Black women sit on the nine-member city council, something people of Taylor’s era “never would have fathomed.”
Public spaces and monuments in the Southern city have long been dedicated almost exclusively to Georgia’s colonial founders, former governors, fallen war heroes and other prominent white men.
“It’s time for a woman-named square,” said Patt Gunn, a Savannah tour guide who led a group of activists that pushed for three years to have the square renamed for Taylor.
The oak-shaded square that will bear Taylor’s name near the southern edge of Savannah’s downtown historic district had spent 170 years named for John C. Calhoun, a former U.S. vice president from South Carolina who was a vocal supporter of slavery in the decades preceding the Civil War.
The Savannah City Council voted last November to get rid of the name Calhoun Square following a campaign by Gunn’s coalition, which argued he was unworthy of the honor in a city where 54% of the population is Black.
City officials stripped any signs with Calhoun’s name from the square immediately following that first vote. The space sat nameless for nine months as City Hall collected recommendations for a new name.
Some in Savannah strongly opposed the change. Resident David Tootle said Calhoun’s support for slavery was dead wrong but shouldn’t disqualify him, as a historical figure who served as vice president under two administrations.
Tootle filed suit last month arguing that removing signs with Calhoun’s name from the square violated a 2019 Georgia law passed to protect Confederate memorials and other public monuments. Tootle sought an injunction blocking city officials from voting on a new name, but never got a ruling from a judge.
“It’s not about Calhoun,” said Tootle, who is Black. “It’s the fact that we’re erasing history. We can’t erase somebody out of the history books and take their names off things because we don’t agree with them and thought they were bad.”
The mayor and council also voted to place a marker in the square explaining that it initially bore Calhoun’s name and why they chose to remove it.
Born to enslaved parents in 1848, Taylor was secretly taught to read and write as a girl living in Savannah. As a teenager during the Civil War, she fled to Georgia’s St. Simons Island, which was occupied by Union troops.
Taylor worked as a nurse for the Union Army, which in turn helped her organize a school to teach emancipated children and adults. After the war, Taylor set up two more schools for Black students. Before her death in 1912, Taylor became the only Black woman to publish a memoir of her life during the war.
The city council chose Taylor from a diverse group. Finalists also included a pastor who in 1777 founded one of America’s oldest Black churches in Savannah; a civil rights leader whose efforts peacefully desegregated the city in 1963; the women who kickstarted Savannah’s historic preservation movement in the 1950s; and an Army special operations pilot who saved his crew but perished in a 2014 helicopter crash in Savannah.