Shoutin’ the Praises of Susie King Taylor Square 

Anyone who’s been here a hot humid minute knows even the tiniest black cloud can pour down gallons of rain. The mean-looking dark puffball circling the low sky above the gazebo in Whitefield Square looked like a soaker, but Sistah Patt Gunn wasn’t fazed.

“It doesn’t rain on Gullah Geechee events,” she shrugged with a smile. “Just you watch.”

I clutched my umbrella and listened warily for a grumble of thunder as the beloved storyteller and activist checked her microphone with unhurried serenity, preparing for the monthly teach-in of the Center for Jubilee, Reconciliation and Healing. While it’s true the center’s Come Sunday gatherings have an unbroken record of excellent weather, my faith has been befuddled too many times by freak storm swamp hair.

Unbothered by the cloud stalking the tree line like a creepy clown, Sistah Patt circled Whitefield Square seven times and burned sage to call in and honor the enslaved ancestors who once toiled here. Some of them are interred under the bricked pathways in what was the city’s first African burial grounds, and the 18th-century strangers’ cemetery extends over to Calhoun Square on the next block. The chilling irony of these public spaces named for Confederate slaveholders may soon melt away under the warmth of civic engagement—starting with forced labor champion Calhoun, who wasn’t from Georgia but managed to worm his way into the local mythology anyway. 

(My Savannah-educated husband recalls the elementary school rhyme “John C. Calhoun/a man so handsome/he made women swoon,” which not only smacks of rape culture but it is wholly untrue; the man was as hideous as a genetically-modified squashbug and appears to have styled his hair with a pitchfork.)

Part history lesson, part hosanna, Come Sundays have become the lightning rod (metaphorically, please) of the charge to divest Savannah’s squares of slaveholder nomenclature, and last Sunday’s congregation crackled with new developments. (For a primer on the issue, catch up on award-winning local journalist Will Peebles’ steadfast documentation.)

After months of collecting signatures to upcycle Calhoun Square to Jubilee Square as an homage to the celebratory end of slavery, Sistah Patt announced Friday that the center will now seek to rename it Taylor Square to honor Civil War nurse, secret schoolteacher, resistance fighter, elegant memoirist, and all-around badass Susie King Taylor

The shift came after a few neighbors who live around the square waffled around the name change—according to the city charter, 51 percent of property owners around the square must approve before the proposal can be submitted (even though Savannah’s squares are public spaces and maintained by our taxes.) Apparently some fretted that the square ought to be named after an actual person (even though several others are not) and that at least Calhoun—who famously called slavery a “positive good”—fulfills the code’s conditions (even though he does not.)

Sistah Patt, well-versed in diplomatic compromise and the inexplicable absurdities of local politics, capitulated quickly. 

“They wanted a name, and we have one,” she explained, the storm cloud scurrying to the corner of the square. “The best, actually.”

It is a genius pivot. 

First of all, the square already abuts Taylor Street, so Lyft drivers will adapt nicely. And not only does SKT tick all the codified boxes—dead historic figure, local significance, humanitarian legacy—she is a far better representative of Savannah than some rich white dick from South Carolina who heralded slavery as a “positive good.” 

That’s not my opinion—that’s just facts: The recently-released results of 2020 Census show that our city remains both majority Black (53.93%) and majority female (52.4%). If—dare we say when—the center’s proposal sails through the rest of the rigamarole presided over by the city and its commissions, Taylor Square would be the first named after an African American and a woman, a long overdue acknowledgement of the civic contributions of these demographics.

The Census statistics also reveal the needle has not changed on citizens living below the poverty line (21.9%), a collective social ill that Susie King Taylor would surely not abide. I mean, that withering gaze: 

“You cannot deny her influence,” lauded scholar Hermina Glass-Hill during Sunday’s teach-in. “She taught legions of people to read and write. She wrote a book that is still read today. She is known throughout the country” 

Glass-Hill is the the Executive Director of the Susie King Taylor Institute and Ecology Center in Midway, GA (not to be confused with the SKT charter school on Bull Street) and pointed out the “positive good” of recognizing Taylor in a prominent public space.

“Savannah is a gem, a place of many stories, but it has a patina of trauma and pain,” noted the historian and iconoclastic cultural expert, resplendent with a blue mohawk and artful blazer studded with handmade cloth dolls and tiny plastic king cake babies.

“This would expand what we know about this city, and what it will be in the future.” 

It is a salient point: As time rolls forward, the way this city frames and reframes the past will define its place in a world moving further away from continuously debunked myths of who truly influenced the present. Savannah is so much more than its narrow Civil War hero worship, and hanging on to names that have no relevance holds the city back. It’s not about including Black history—it’s about honest history.

In any case, the neighborfolk have agreed, the signatures garnered and paperwork filed, and the process of welcoming Taylor Square to the pantheon of history is in motion. Though most official proceedings around here move at the pace of a minivan with Florida license plates, hopes are high that this will get done in 2021.

Of course, there might be some dark clouds of opposition, but Sistah Patt and her cohorts, including Sistah Roz Rouse, Sir Deepy Frazier (who has announced his 2024 presidential candidacy, stay tuned), Regina Washington, Mallory and Julia Pearce and a whole host of allies seem to have a way with bad weather. 

For real though. I felt a bit sheepish for my wavering faith as the Sad Little Storm That Couldn’t drifted off towards East Broad Street, perhaps to rain on other parades. The refrains of the Gullah Geechee prayersong “Kumbaya” rose into the live oaks, meeting a breakthrough ray of sunshine above.

Whether it was the ancestors or a lucky breeze or Susie King Taylor herself, there was an undeniable sense of momentum in the air: One more Sunday in Savannah when everything seemed possible, history unfolding anew.

See y’all in Taylor Square ~ JLL