EDITORIAL NOTE: A shorter version of this article was first published as an op ed in the Savannah Morning News and by Yahoo News as : “Calhoun Square needs a new name. How about that of an iconic Black journalist?”
People in Savannah, Georgia (USA) can feel particularly good about the city council’s unanimous vote late in 2022 to remove former U.S. vice president and slave-owner John C. Calhoun’s (1782-1850) name from a downtown square. The council’s proactive move has less to do with any attempts to “correct history of the past” than to balance representation, and promote sanity, in the present.
The members’ collective action stands in stark contrast to the Georgia state legislature’s steadfast refusal to delete former governor and white supremacist Eugene Talmadge’s (1884-1946) name from the beautiful bridge spanning the Savannah river. It possibly says a lot about the various lines of division appearing to separate American communities these days.
Why Robert S. Abbott Matters
When I first met the late civil and human rights leader Westley Wallace (W.W.) Law (1923-2002) many years ago, he was campaigning to have East Broad Street school renamed Robert S. Abbott Elementary School. Knowing very little at the time about the history-shaping Great Migration or African America’s Harlem Renaissance in the previous century, some years went by before I understood why Mr. Law felt so strongly about the issue.
More recently, I enjoyed with a group of writers a conversation concerning how little many Savannahians, based on what we had experienced and observed, seemed to know about how much the city, or different native sons and daughters of the same, have impacted not just Georgia’s history, but America’s and the world’s. (The election of Senator Raphael G. Warnock to the U.S. Congress in 2020 and his runoff battle against Herschel Walker in 2022 are exciting exceptions where awareness is concerned.)
It was something I discussed via emails with the late Jane Fishman during the past few years. We felt it important enough to begin compiling names of African Americans who fit the category. One such noteworthy name, I propose, is that of Robert Sengstacke Abbott (1870-1940).
Documenting Abbott's history-changing impact
Upon learning about the city council’s vote to remove Calhoun’s name from the historic square, located at Abercorn and East Wayne streets, it occurred to me this could prove an opportunity to correct a significant deficiency. A historical marker dedicated to Abbott, courtesy of the city and Georgia Historical Society, can be found at West Bay and Albion streets. The marker acknowledges how Abbott’s stepfather, John H. H. Sengstacke, taught him the printing trade and how Abbott later further developed his skills to establish in 1905:
“…the Chicago Defender, a newspaper that revolutionized African-American journalism. He fought to abolish Jim Crow laws and establish a non-discriminatory society. The Defender played a major role in initiating the Great Migration (1915-1919)….”
Only so much information, however, can be placed on a historical marker. The word count is too small to explain the extraordinary impact Abbott’s newspaper had on the phenomenal success of what we call the Harlem Renaissance (1920s-1940s). Nor is it sufficient enough, as greatly appreciated as the marker is, to detail the publisher’s beginnings on St. Simons Island, or the traditions of philanthropy established by him and which have benefited Blacks and Whites alike.
How all of this links Savannah to the Great Northern Migration and the triumphant Harlem Renaissance, now celebrated worldwide, is particularly significant in light of the potential it holds for Georgia’s booming film industry.
Abbott’s former home in Chicago is now a national landmark. In 2017, artist Kevin Pullen unveiled a sculpture called “Abbott and His Boys” as a tribute to the great publisher and in celebration of Gullah Geechee Heritage Day on St. Simons Island. Several volumes documenting the importance of Abbott’s legacy have been published in recent years; literary rumor has it a prominent local historian is hard at work on another.
A number of worthy names of African Americans have already been proposed to replace Calhoun’s on the downtown square. Most of these have already been publicly honored in different ways and are celebrated annually during Black History Month and other occasions.
Almost two decades ago, I was fortunate enough to participate in a project which led to an appearance on an early-morning news show where I discussed Abbott’s historical importance with WSAV’s Kim Gusby, and, corporate trainer and poet Iris Formey-Dawson. Right now seems an excellent time for citizens of Savannah to renew that conversation. It’s one I have no doubt W.W. Law would have encouraged.
Winner of Choice Academic Title Award, Best History Book Award, and Notable Book of the Year Award for Encyclopedia of the Harlem Remaisssance.