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Book Review: Saving Savannah: The City and the Civil War by Jacqueline Jones

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We often see or hear about people who appear to be without conscience. Daily, we read in the news about persons who have criminalized their lives and wonder how they judge themselves human. Of course, the problem begins right there: These misguided destructionists do not consider their acts as evil, as immoral, as against either a natural or divine law. Many of these individuals are labeled criminally insane because “they know not what they do.”

The diligently written but unforgettable book, Saving Savannah: The City and The Civil War, is about a misguided people who criminalized their very existence by brutalizing African-American slaves right here in our own United States where “all men are created equal.” The shackling irony of this immoral “in God we trust” behavior went wasted by a population that covered a huge territory, namely the residents of the counties of Georgia and the immediate environs of Savannah itself.

Believing that black Africans were not truly humans, the superior whites treated them much like they’d treat the horse, the donkey, or the mule used to tend their plantations. Since slave labor was cheap compared to labor in the industrialized North, plantation owners thrived. To ensure ongoing wealth, they taught their children, often by horrendous example, how to keep slaves disenfranchised and in their place.

In 1854, Savannah was dying because of an outbreak of yellow fever. Strangely enough, many blacks seemed immune to the mosquito carrying disease. Author Jacqueline Jones mentions that the very trait which made West African groups highly vulnerable to sickle-cell anemia seemed to protect these peoples from malaria and yellow fever. This noticeable immunity bolstered whites’ belief that blacks were ordained to labor in the South’s scorching, humid, mosquito infested climate.

During the epidemic, both free and enslaved blacks often carried food to infected households. Records in Saving Savannah show that in many instances, they even attended those who could not fend for themselves due to weakness and/or fever. The city of Savannah depreciated. Many stunning homes built by slave labor became unkempt looking. What had been shaded tree lined streets with bountiful flower-filled garden-like squares at two dozen major intersections now became trampled barren eyesores.

To add to the city’s severe health problems, a major hurricane came ashore along the Georgia coast interrupting gas service to the city’s famous street lamps. Ripping gales and torrential rains tore off roofs and wrought general havoc to many of the finest homes. Life along and on the islands in the lower Savannah River was literally washed away. Animals, owners, slaves, homes, stores of food, cotton and rice crops were obliterated.

It is interesting to note that after many such devastating events, monies were readily obtained to restore Savannah’s appearance to its former beauty lest it lose its attraction as a busy commercial port. Thus, far more money was spent on restoration projects than on saving people’s lives. Any assumption that slave owners would care for their slaves during a crisis was purely a joke.

The end of the Civil War brought with it not only the bitterness of defeat for the South, but also the horrendous struggle for four million emancipated slaves. Granting any kind of honest pay for a day’s work was unthinkable to plantation owners in Jim Crow South. In the North, black men who had shouldered a rifle for the Union Army found it equally difficult to find work. Whites were unwilling to allow an African-American with few skills or training to take a “white man’s” job.

Emancipation unleashed the fierce fires of prejudice: the KKK; "Whites Only" restaurants, stores, hospitals; blacks to the rear of buses, theaters, train cars, hotels and motels; white flight from established neighborhoods because the “Negro” would lower the value of property.

Bigotry is an ugly demon. It dies a sluggish death. It weakens with each passing generation which so adamantly upheld its gruesome righteousness. In the end, it must wait for those prejudiced against, to do the impossible: to “pick themselves up by their own bootstraps” for they would receive little outside help. In the United States, the African American population did just that. They taught themselves and their children to read and write and remain decent; against so many odds, they learned skills needed for jobs at which they became adept or even better than their white counterparts, with lower wages, of course.

With learning came the skill of the tongue that slowly but systematically opened the doors into the political arena. Blacks not only spoke openly about their African traditions in religion, culture, and music; they wrote books about it. In every facet of American life, including two world wars, the African-American slowly but effectively infused black power into the national culture.

But in a sense, advancement has occurred logarithmically. In 1851, Thomas Simms, stowed aboard the Gilmore sailing from Georgia to Boston to flee a life of brutal slavery. In 1951, a full one hundred years later, I remember when my own parents took me to Highland Park in Pittsburgh. In numbers, police were there on horseback to maintain order because black folks were daring to enter a "Whites Only" public swimming pool. I remember how whites left the water when blacks jumped in. I recall comments made by my own parents warning me not to drink from a fountain after blacks had used it. In 2010, sixty-nine years later, we have an African-American President.

Saving Savannah is a treasure to own and read. Taken from original sources — personal notes, letters, diaries, newspapers, and the like — its uniquely informative story gives an unforgettable panoramic view of life in Savannah before, during, and after, the Civil War. Savannah like so much of America needed to be saved — saved from itself. I would recommend this book to everyone who likes to read historical fiction. I would hope the youth of our nation read it lest they forget the awful price paid by African-Americans for their very freedom.

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