To rename or retain? Calhoun Square effort receives support, opposition from Savannah

The ongoing effort to rename Calhoun Square has garnered both support and opposition from the public, pushing the idea closer to the contemporary debate on how best to handle Confederate monuments, as well as places named for those who supported slavery.

The square in question, Calhoun Square, is named for John C. Calhoun, a South Carolina politician, U.S. vice president and a fierce advocate for slavery in the United States.

The greenspace that bears his name is the southernmost square on Abercorn Street, two blocks northeast of Forsyth Park and across Gordon Street from the Massie School Heritage Center. The square is not far from a burial ground that was the designated cemetery for both free and enslaved people of color, the Center for Jubilee, Reconciliation and Healing pointed out in their name change application.

On the third Sunday of each of the last few months, Center for Jubilee co-founders Patt Gunn and Rosalyn Rouse have hosted “Come Sunday,” a public education focused effort where they give updates on the process in the square they hope to rename.

This month, due to scheduling conflicts, it was moved to the second Sunday, but the focus remained unchanged. And a group of about 20 supporters gathered around as Gunn and other speakers provided historical context for the effort to rename the square.

Among those supporters was Marc Henley, wearing a faded teal Black Lives Matter hat.

Henley moved to Savannah from Philadelphia about two and a half years ago, but his first brush with Calhoun Square was before that, on his first visit to the city.

“I thought, ‘Wait a minute. Calhoun? That’s a name I’ve heard of, and not a name I’ve heard of in a favorable sense.’ I did a little bit of homework and thought, ‘This was not OK.’ As time has gone on, as I’ve been here a little longer, I decided I wanted to find out if there was a movement to do anything.”

He got in touch with Gunn and latched onto the project, sharing her goal.

“Let’s honor the people who are here in a way that really does honor them,” Henley said.

Henley is part of a letter-writing coalition that plans to write letters to the editor and to city council voicing their support for the effort. The letter writers are Connie Boole, who says her interest is in telling the side of history that isn’t often told.

“I want to support the history that was not told before. A lot of times, history is only written by the powerful, by those in charge. It’s time for us to look at the history of those who were less powerful, but just as important in our community.” Boole said.

'This is our story'

Diane Hilleary shares that sentiment, adding that though the past may not be especially flattering, the truth should be told.

“This is our story. It’s deplorable, but it’s our story,” Hilleary said. “We have to embrace it and talk about it and tell our children. I want people to be able to come to Savannah and appreciate the beauty, but also deal with what the history truly is.”

But the Center for Jubilee's work has also been met with criticism. As of Monday, a petition from called "Petition to the City of Savannah to Retain the Name of Calhoun Square" had garnered 91 signatures

“Although it is true that John C. Calhoun, like many others in the South, was a slave owner and proponent of slavery, the square was not named for him for that reason but to honor his many contributions to this young nation as they appeared at that specific time in history. Since the square is located in the Historic Landmark District, the historic context of the naming should factor into any decision on retaining the name,” the petition reads.

While a petition is a common answer to social causes these days, the Center for Jubilee has nearly completed the city’s requirements to get the item on a city council budget. If that happens, those in opposition would be relegated to speaking at the council meeting and perhaps presenting the petition.

Currently, all the Center for Jubilee needs is the signatures of 10 of the 19 owners of properties surrounding the square. Gunn said they’re talking with neighbors, and plan to have them sign all at once when they have the numbers.

Additionally, the city requires a letter of endorsement from either the mayor, an at-large councilwoman or 2nd District Alderman Detric Leggett. Leggett spoke at the meeting on Sunday and voiced his support, though as of Monday afternoon he had not yet signed an endorsement letter.

“If I have to be the one to bring this legislation before city council, I will,” Leggett told the crowd.

Will Peebles is the enterprise reporter for Savannah Morning News. He can be reached at and @willpeeblessmn on Twitter.

This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: To rename or retain? Calhoun Square effort receives support, opposition from Savannah