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Activists fight to memorialize site of largest slave auction in American history


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: Activists in Savannah, Georgia, are fighting to shine a spotlight on a little known, but very painful moment in American history.

Special correspondent Benedict Moran reports for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Benedict Moran: Three miles from the center of Savannah sits this nondescript plot of land. Thousands of cars drive by it without notice every day, but these trees mask a dark history.

It was near here, more than 150 years ago, that the largest single auction of enslaved people in the history of the United States was held. The sale was advertised in newspapers across the country. And, over the course of two days in 1859, more than 400 children, women, and men were sold to the highest bidder to settle the gambling debts of a wealthy plantation owner.

According to news articles of the time, rain fell as though the heavens were crying. the event became known as the Weeping Time. Until recently, the tragedy was forgotten, unknown even to those who lived close by.

Larry Gordon is the pastor of the Solomon Temple Church of God in Christ, which is located just down the street. He says, for most of his life, he had never heard of the infamous auction.

Pastor Larry Gordon, President, The Weeping Time Coalition: In 2006, we found out that this is the area where they sold the most slaves in United States history. I grew up in this area, two blocks down, and I played in this area. And it blew my mind.

Benedict Moran: Today, he leads a coalition of neighbors which hopes to create a memorial here, so people across the nation may learn about this painful past.

Pastor Larry Gordon: I was trying to preserve this area and give those Weeping Time slaves a voice.

Benedict Moran: But the city of Savannah has other plans. Last year, the City Council authorized the construction of a homeless shelter here. It commissioned an archaeological study, which concluded this isn't precisely where the auction happened.

City officials say, if a memorial is to be built, it should be done in the exact location where the auction actually took place. They say that's here, behind the gates of a privately held plywood factory.

Reverend Leonard Small works with Pastor Gordon, bringing the campaign to social media. They sued the city to block the construction of the homeless shelter. He says, the entire area is sacred.

Rev. Leonard Small, Vice President, The Weeping Time Coalition: This land is the land that they're saying had nothing to do with the Weeping Time sale. This area was the entrance for the elite. This area is associated with intimately the Weeping Time sale.

Benedict Moran: Behind the clash over the Weeping Time memorial is a bigger debate unfolding across the country, what should be remembered and commemorated in public spaces.

Before the Civil War, Savannah become one of the wealthiest cities in America, largely because of cotton, which was grown and picked by enslaved people. But walk the streets of the city today, or take a ride in its famous trolley tours, and you will see few memorials to that past.

That's why many want to put the site of the Weeping Time slave auction on the map.

Kwesi DeGraft-Hanson, Geographer: The largest slave sale is important not just because of the numbers, but is because it is something that allows us to see the intensity of what was going on.

Benedict Moran: Kwesi DeGraft-Hanson is a geographer who helped discover the location of the Weeping Time auction site. He says, the Weeping Time is part of a hidden, silent, and sometimes erased landscape of slavery in the south.

Kwesi DeGraft-Hanson: Many people don't realize, if we drive the streets of Savannah, Georgia, those streets were carved out of pine groves by enslaved people. We are all benefiting from their labor, and they deserve our honor.

Benedict Moran: That means telling the full story of Savannah's past.

Patt Gunn, Underground Tours of Savannah: This tour is about truth-telling, reconciliation, healing, and repair.

Benedict Moran: Patt Gunn runs Underground Tours, which she says tries to give tourists the full truth about Savannah's history. On a recent morning in October, Gunn guided a group of tourists on a walking tour of the city.

Patt Gunn: As we take this to a block walk, you will find zero markers on slavery, no markers by the city of Savannah, like it never happened.

Benedict Moran: The group visited caverns under Bay Street, where Gunn says enslaved Africans were likely kept before being sold, and a square where many banks profited from slavery.

Patt Gunn: They create eight banks in the square. And those eight banks, transferred by assignment, are still existing.

Benedict Moran: The 2015 shooting of churchgoers in neighboring South Carolina unleashed a national movement to learn more about systemic racism and an effort to remove many public symbols of the Confederacy.

Patt Gunn leads a movement to change the name of one of the city's 22 historic squares, which, since 1851, was named after John C. Calhoun. He was a and a fierce defender of slavery, who also advocated for the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans.

During a heated public comment session, Savannah residents came out in support of the name change.

Speaker: I cannot imagine how anyone would want to continue to honor Calhoun in our city.

Speaker: It should be just that simple. It is just time to do this.

Benedict Moran: Others defended Calhoun, calling for the city to keep the name.

Speaker: Trying to change it, to me, is an insult to my heritage, my family's heritage, and the city's heritage.

Benedict Moran: Savannah Mayor Van Johnson says, renaming the Calhoun Square and memorializing the Weeping Time is not an attempt to rewrite history. It's rather an effort to expand it, to be more inclusive of Savannah's past.

Van Johnson (D), Mayor of Savannah, Georgia: Ultimately, our goal is to make sure Savannah's entire story is told. Some people are very concerned about old monuments. I want to create new movements.

Benedict Moran: Johnson says a memorial to the Weeping Time slave auction should be built, just not on the site where the homeless shelter will be.

Van Johnson: My goal will be, is to continually try to seek out a way to allow for some public access to this private space to construct a significant memorial to what happened in Savannah on those days.

Benedict Moran: Memorial proponents want a place where descendants of those who were sold can come to remember. Only the first names of the victims of the sale were recorded.

George, Sue, and their children, George Jr. and Harry, sold for $620 each. Not even infants were spared. Hannah was just 3 months old when she was sold.

Rev. Leonard Small: It is important that we, the American family, save this site, so that there can be a place of reflection, contemplation, and consecration. It is unconscionable to me that, in 2022, in a city that is majority African American, we would have to fight to save this site.

Benedict Moran: For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Benedict Moran in Savannah, Georgia.

Judy Woodruff: And there's been one new development to this report.

Since this story was filed, the Savannah City Council voted unanimously to remove the name of Calhoun Square. The Savannah mayor said that the city will now begin searching for a new name for the unnamed square, asking citizens to weigh in with their ideas.

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