Street Scene – Savannah, Georgia circa 1880s


Street Scene Savannah Georgia 1880s
“The lightening express, Savannah, Georgia”; African American with bull-drawn wagon; by photographer George Baker, 1886.
Image Source: Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. “The lightening express, Savannah, Georgia.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections, retrieved from “http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e2-ee5d-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99” on September 3, 2015.

The American Civil War and the end of slavery wrought a sweeping transformation upon Savannah, Georgia, as they did on almost all the South. In her book Saving Savannah: The City and the Civil War, pages 347-8, historian Jacqueline Jones writes about how African Americans in Savannah experienced their new-found freedom by making reference to records from the 1870 Census. Her text gives an insight into the world that the man above entered in the wake of Jubilee in the post-war South:

…implicit on the pages of the (1870) census records was high drama – stories of black families liberated from slavery. Even individual names were revealing. Among the four children of Samuel and Rebecca Young, both illiterate house servants, were two sons: one, born the year of the Emancipation Proclamation, they had named Moses; his younger brother, born to years later, they called Lincoln. (to honor a harbinger of freedom, they had chosen to call an older son, born in 1859, Gabriel.) And the composition of individual households suggests the strenuous efforts of laboring men to free their mothers, wives, and children from the generations long burden of menial labor. Robert Young, a 28 year old illiterate cotton press worker, had recently served as president of the Sons of Zion Society. He may enough money to allow his wife, Jane, to stay home and keep house, and their son John, age 12, to attend school. Still, many families needed multiple breadwinners to sustain themselves. Fortune Campbell, an officer in the Zion Travelers Society, was working as a day laborer. His large household relied on the income of his wife, Susan, a laundress, and their three teenage sons, also employed as laborers. Under their roof were the Campbell’s three younger children; an elderly woman, Catherine Campbell, probably Fortune’s mother; Lilly Stewart, 42, a huckster (street vendor), and Joseph Stewart, ten, probably Lilly’s son.

The information collected by census workers provides a collective portrait of the black community, or at least the relatively stable portions of it. Black men were employed in 58 occupations ranging from cook and stevedore to cotton shipper, pilot, upholsterer, and a bookbinder. The most common jobs were laborer, drayman, porter, teamster, carpenter, and brick layer. Black women, 70% of homes were employed, we’re limited to jobs as midwives, cooks, seamstresses, nurses, and servants. Sixty-six proprietors owned among them 27 different kinds of businesses. Throughout the community, literate blacks could be found in all kinds of jobs, including those of Farmer, laborer, waiter, carpenter, undertaker, porter, tailor, butcher, painter, and whitewasher. No longer need a person be a school teacher or a preacher to be able to read the Bible or the Morning News (newspaper).

Individual households such as the Lawrences revealed the familial and group ties that bound Savannah free people to each other. Elizabeth, 43, and John, 45, at one point served as president and secretary, respectively, of the John the Baptist Society. In the summer of 1870 John was working as a huckster and Elizabeth was keeping house. Living with them were their own children (a son, a butcher; and a daughter, a nurse); Justine Erwin, 20, a laundress; and two children, Tina Barrett, eight, and Madeline Fraser, ten. Black households included an average of three persons who did not share the same surname as the head, suggesting a collective ethos that informed the postwar community. And together they were industrious: by the spring of 1870, three thousand account holders, either individually or as members of mutual-aid societies, had deposited a total of $415,781 in the Savannah branch of the Freedman’s Bank. The drafts drawn on the bank by this time-worth more than $324,000-help to account for the $400,000 in property owned by Savannah blacks, a fourfold increase over 1860.

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One thought on “Street Scene – Savannah, Georgia circa 1880s

  1. Alan: Great site. I used Jaqueline Jones’s fine book as context for my recent article titled: The Wealthiest Slave in Savannah: Rachel Brownfield and the True Price of Freedom. Rachel hired out her own time to purchase her freedom and hid escaped Union soldiers in her boarding house during the Civil War.You may download a free pdf version at my website http://www.davidtdixon.com. There are several other articles there concerning free blacks. Keep up the good work, this is terrific!

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