Reinterpreting the Owens-Thomas House

Dr. Leslie Harris, Emory University, Dr. Daina Ramey Berry, University of Texas, DaVena Sanders Jordan, AWOL, Lakesha Green, AWOL
Dr. Leslie Harris, Emory University, Dr. Daina Ramey Berry, University of Texas, DaVena Sanders Jordan, AWOL, Lakesha Green, AWOL

For over 50 years the Owens-Thomas House has been interpreted as the home and stylish showplace of Richard Richardson family, and later the George Welslunan Owens family. During this time tours focused primarily on the families who owned and lived in the house and the home’s architectural and decorative style.

However, the mid-1990’s restoration of the OwensThomas House slave quarters highlighted the need to tell a more complete story. More than a decade of preparation, including archaeological excavations, NEH funded round-table discussions, community input and extensive research have laid the groundwork for a full scale reinterpretation.

In 2008 the Telfair adopted an updated strategic plan that outlined goals for the 2010-2014 reinterpretation of the Owens-Thomas House. An important aspect oftrus new interpretation focuses on the lives and labor of the documented enslaved people who built, maintained and serviced the home. The Telfair plans to begin the initial implementation phase of the reinterpretation project in the fall of 2011.

Part of this initial phase of implementation for which the Telfair Museum of Art requests support is a 3-day symposium: Slavery and Freedom in Savannah. The symposium will be free of charge and held October 13th, 14th, and 15th of 2011, and will offer a minimum of 11 lectures, several workshops and guided tours of related exhibits.

As the first academic gathering to focus on the topic of urban slavery in Savannah, the program is expected to attract over 500 attendees from all Over the country. A Community Advisory Committee has been formed to ensure that broad participation/ input from the community at-large is received and to promote additional community tie-ins to the symposium.

Project consultants, Dr. Leslie Harris, Emory University, and Dr. Daina Berry, University of Texas, both extensively published on the subject of slavery in America, are assembling a team of scholars to present their findings on specific topics that surround urban slavery.

Symposium lectures will be accessible to high school and college students, as well as scholars, historians and general audiences. The symposium program is designed to expand the public’s understanding of American history by presenting the under-explored subject of urban slavery. It will offer the audience the opportunity to learn, explore, and exchange ideas within the physical setting of the subject; the Owens-Thomas House and the preserved environment of Savannah’s National Historic Landmark District, where the property is located. The following abstract of topics outlines in further detail the scholars that are committed for this critical initiative, as well as a more detailed look at the focus of their topics for the symposium.

This multi-phase reinterpretation project will continue with the publication of a scholarly book on urban slavery. The book will be a collection of essays that align with symposium topics and will be published and distributed by UGA Press in 2012.

Research for the symposium and book will set the course for further reinterpretation of the Owens-Thomas House which will initially be introduced by site interpreters and will progress to redefining spaces and displays within the site.

Project consultants will continue to work with staff in creating and revising the tours and displays.

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