On June 19, 1865, more than 250,000 enslaved people in Galveston, Texas finally received news that the war had ended and they were free. Jubilant celebrations broke out across the state and spread to the south, including Georgia and South Carolina. Today, 47 states and the District of Columbia recognize Juneteenth as either a state holiday or day of observance, and each year more communities and organizations are gathering to foster awareness of African American history and celebrate freedom.
One Savannah organization is gearing up for an especially jubilant celebration this year! Savannah African Art Museum (SAAM) is hosting a Juneteenth community celebra- tion to honor the past and embrace the future on Saturday, June 19th, 12-4 p.m., on the museum grounds. The FREE event includes mini-museum tours, African art, dance, storytelling, crafts and a very special guest—acclaimed photographer, author and Founder/ Editor in Chief of the travel magazine Nomads, Lauri Lyons—to speak about the historical, social justice initiative she researched and founded, Rest with Honor Savannah.
The story behind Rest with Honor Savannah began in 2017, when a Georgia Film Board press trip brought Lauri to the Hostess City. On her last night, she thought the Blue Orb Ghost Walking Tour might be a fun way to see the city. One of the stops was Calhoun Square, where things became a bit unsettling—at least for Lauri. “Our tour guide casually mentioned that ‘rumor had it,’ the area had once been an African burial ground, and was considered the most haunted area of the city.” No facts were offered to support the rumor, but Lauri had a very visceral feeling while standing on the ground. “Something had happened there. Something wasn’t right, and I could feel it.”
Lauri returned home to resume her life, but the Calhoun Square experience nagged at her. Before long, she felt compelled to find out if those grounds had been allocated for Negroes to be buried in—or, not. “I made calls to people in Savannah who might know, reached out to the Savannah municipal archives, and learned that the ‘rumor’ was based in fact.”
Lauri’s research revealed a space had been legally delegated for Blacks to be buried in; however, in 1850, the city closed the Negro Burying Ground (aka African burial ground) and redesigned the space as two public squares—without removing all of the bodies. Calhoun Square was named in honor of John C. Calhoun, the fierce pro-slavery Vice President of the United States and the Confederate icon responsible for creating the philosophy of State’s Rights, nullification and secession from the Union, and Whitefield Square was named in honor of Reverend George Whitefield, one of the primary people responsible for overturning Georgia’s ban on slavery.
At this point, Lauri felt like a spiritual force was pushing her forward. “Once I started gathering all of this information, it was really mind-blowing. With no sign there, people need some way to know these burial grounds existed, where they existed, and the history surrounding it!” In 2020, Lauri officially began the Rest with Honor Savannah initiative with an online petition
@ www.change.org/restwithhonorsavannah, which asks that the burial grounds be officially commemorated by the city as African burial grounds, Calhoun and Whitefield’s name removed from the squares, a memorial erected, and for the site to be protected via the National Park Service or as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
While exchanging community outreach emails with various Savannah business people and community leaders, Lauri “met” Billie Stultz, Executive Director of SAAM, and Education Coordinator, Lisa Jackson. “Having a museum dedicated to African art that reflects the African diaspora, and is free to the public, is fantastic! The more light that can be shed on the power of such a deep and enriching culture is really important,” Lauri enthused. “I hoped SAAM would be a great institution for outreach; I cannot emphasize enough how super, super supportive they’ve been of Rest with Honor Savannah. Their ongoing support has been respectful, consistent and public—in both words and actions! Supporting a social justice initiative about such an emotional subject is an excellent example of institutional leadership.”
Lauri is also hosting a commemorative event on the evening of June 19th at Calhoun Square. “I’m asking people to come out for a “light vigil,” between 8 until 9 p.m., to give thanks and acknowledgement to the ancestors who are buried there.” While in town, she hopes to have some faceto face time with Savannah community leaders, city officials and the general public to discuss Rest with Honor Savannah. “This initiative is rooted in Savannah, but impacts the African Diaspora and American history,” she explained. “This burial site deserves to be recognized, respected, commemorated and protected.”
To learn more about the Savannah African Art Museum, please visit www.savannahafricanartmuseum.org.