During the second weekend of February, Paul and I went to visit our friends in Savannah, GA. That weekend just happened to be the same as Super Sunday. Super Sunday is an annual museum event in the state of Georgia. This means that all museums in Savannah had FREE entry for the day! Our first stop was the Owens-Thomas house. More like a mansion.
A little history on this “house”
The land the home stands on was purchased by Richard Richardson. Work began on his new home in 1816. The home was designed by English architect, William Jay. John Retan constructed it with a team of free and enslaved men in his charge.
In 1819, the Richardsons moved into the home with their six children and nine enslaved men, women, and children. Their move into this new home did not bring good fortune. For the next three years the family saw decreases in their prosperity, the financial Panic of 1819, a yellow fever epidemic, a fire that destroyed half the city, and the death of Mrs. Richardson and two of the children. Mr. Richardson decided to sell the house in 1822 and moved to Louisiana, where he had family and business interests. He had been shipping enslaved people, mostly children, from Savannah to New Orleans for years.
In 1824, the Bank of the United States owned the house and they leased it out to Mary Maxwell as a boarding house. Among the most famous guests to board here were the Marquis de Lafayette when he visited Savannah in March 1825 as part of his US tour, recognizing the 50th anniversary of the American Revolution.
In 1830, the mayor of Savannah, George Welshman Owens, purchased the property at auction for $10,000. Owens, was a lawyer, planter, and politician. He moved in with his wife, Sarah, and their six children. He kept nine to 15 enslaved people on the property and held almost 400 men, women, and children in bondage on his plantations.
Margaret Gray Thomas was the last Owens descendent to live in the home. She was George Owens’ granddaughter. Margaret passed away in 1951 with no direct heirs. She willed the house to the Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences to be run as a house museum in honor of her grandfather and father. In 1954 the home opened to the public.
What makes this house stand out from others of this period?
This museum holds one of the oldest and best preserved urban slave quarters in the American South. The existence of these quarters has given us a rare glimpse into what it was like to be an enslaved person in an urban setting. We have many museums that concentrate on the experience of an enslaved person within a plantation system, but less within an urban setting.
A focus of the museum’s tour is the carriage house and the history of the enslaved people who lived there, including the nanny, cook and butler. The existence of the slave quarters was discovered during a renovation of the carriage house in the 1990’s. The restoration of this area of the property includes the pantry and other elements of Gullah cooking, and the cellar where meals and laundry were prepared.
At the Owens-Thomas house, the ceiling of the slave quarters is painted haint blue, which was used in Gullah culture to deter ghosts or other evil spirits. It is notable as the largest swath of haint blue paint in North America. We did not know this fact until we stood under the ceiling on the tour, looking up at this deep blue sky ceiling.
“How old is this ceiling and how is it still this vivid in color?” The tour guide said the ceiling was covered by rafters and a second ceiling until the 1990s. All that time, this ceiling was hidden by another ceiling, concealing this treasure.
I was surprised that the blue was such a darker shade than the “haint blue” porch ceilings we’d seen on Broad street mansions in Charleston, SC. The blue we see on those mansions is more a robin’s egg blue, not a dark blue.
“Haint blue” is a color you’ll often see on South Carolina Lowcountry porch ceilings. This color first derived from the dye produced on Lowcountry indigo plantations. It was originally used by enslaved Africans, and later by the Gullah Geechee, to combat “haints” and “boo hags”—evil spirits who escaped their human forms at night to paralyze, injure, ride (the way a person might ride a horse), or even kill innocent victims. The color was said to trick ghosts into believing that they’ve stumbled into water (which they cannot cross) or sky (which will lead them farther from the victims they seek).
Indigo dye is deeply rooted in African culture and so is the symbolic use of the color blue to ward off evil spirits. In her book Red, White, and Black Make Blue, Andrea Feeser describes West African spiritual traditions that included wearing blue beads or clothing for protection. Another practice is placing blue bottles in tree to catch the evil spirits.
In some cultures, indigo has spiritual significance. In Blue Alchemy, director and producer Mary Lance’s film about indigo around the world, women at a Nigerian workshop are documented delivering a prayer to the Yoruba indigo deity, Iyamapo.
Painting credit: Artist Stephen Hamilton’s work http://www.itanproject.com/portraiture-3/ce40fxj6dgmwjhnzn20jhaqlna4awo
To me, the dark blue I saw on the slave quarter’s ceiling was not simply tempting evil spirits at an iron gate like the homes of historic Charleston. This shade of blue evoked a clear protective sonic boom of a color keeping the tenants safe. It was not done for fashion sake, but for a true conviction rooted in old and sacred traditions. Now, the robin’s egg blue I see on million dollar porches can no longer compare to the shade of haint blue in this room.
How did they get such a rich paint color? The tour guide said they made the paint from indigo, buttermilk, and crushed oyster shells. Like the idea of haint blue, I see the color “being toned down” through history. I am reminded that the oppressing culture takes an idea from the marginalized and attempts to beat the meaning out of it. You can leave a color on a wall in a house you bought because it looks pretty, but you won’t bother asking why the color was chosen in the first place. Traditions may be passed on but they really only mean something if you know why you are doing it, why it exists in the first place.
There is an upstairs of the slave quarters. It’s sterile and empty. The opposite of what it was before slavery ended. I imagine it crammed with people, stuffy air, the smell of sweat. They said on the tour that there would’ve been 10 people or more living in this one upstairs room at a time.
Thinking back on the space, I wonder who laid under this room’s haint blue sky? Who placed their head on the cool dirt floor looking for a rare moment of stillness, a moment of surrender. Did they spend their whole life surrendering? Giving up things and people? I hope not. But I know most enslaved people did. This may have been the closest thing to “home” they had.
Yet, how grateful I am that someone painted this royal blue up on the ceiling. Their tradition has made it into a modern day museum for others to look up at. We know that you were here.
For a deeper reading on the history of Haint Blue and it’s connection to the Gullah Geechee Culture of the Lowcountry, I urge you to read: https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/what-haint-blue-means-to-descendants-enslaved-africans