The climax of this conflict is set for Thursday night, when the Savannah City Council is expected to adopt a new name for the square that until November 2022 was named for John Calhoun. The South Carolinian served two terms as vice president in the 1820s, then began a long, influential U.S. Senate tenure in 1832.
Assuming the Savannah council agrees on a name — there are 15 for consideration — the city intends to rebrand the square with signage and placards in late September or early October. In the meantime, though, the square and its past and future names promise to play a role in a pair of elections.
Trust the process?
This square saga begins with Patt Gunn and Rosalyn Rouse, two Savannah natives who launched the anti-Calhoun crusade in December 2020. Social justice protests had swept the nation the previous summer in response to the George Floyd killing by a Minneapolis police officer, and monuments and other tributes to Americans deemed to have been racists were being removed or erased across the country.
Gunn and Rouse are Gullah Geechee, descendants of enslaved people who once worked plantations along the Georgia and South Carolina coast. Gunn makes her living as a tour guide who specializes in educating visitors on the history of enslaved people in Savannah.
For years she’d explained to clients Calhoun’s historical significance. Calhoun is acknowledged as an early leader in the secessionist movement, the first to openly call for the Southern states to secede from the United States — in 1831, three decades before his home state led the secessionist movement and ignited the Civil War. A slave owner, he defended slavery throughout his nearly 16 years in the U.S. Senate.
Gunn also relayed the existence of a Colonial-era burial ground for enslaved and freed Black people that lies beneath the streets, homes and churches near the square.
As the social justice movement gained momentum, Gunn, Rouse and other members of a community activist organization known as the Center for Jubilee, Reconciliation and Healing petitioned to rename Calhoun Square.
By Savannah ordinance, renaming a park or street requires buy-in from nearby property owners. More than half the neighbors must sign off on the change before a new name can be considered. Gunn and Rouse received broad support early until a group of nearby residents mobilized opposition. They said the square had borne the name Calhoun since 1851, the year after his death and before the Civil War, and persuaded two name-change backers to rescind their blessings.
As one defender of the Calhoun name, a Black Savannahian named David Tootle, would later tell the City Council, “At the end of the day, we have to preserve history or else we will repeat it.”
Even with the pushback, Gunn and Rouse eventually met the signature threshold and formally filed their petition a year into their efforts.
Nothing moves quickly through Savannah’s bureaucratic maze, though. By the time the application was to be heard by a review commission, one of the signatories had sold his house, dropping the percentage of neighbors in support of the new name below 50%. The renaming petition was rejected.
Two months later, the Center for Jubilee, Reconciliation and Healing refiled the paperwork with the requisite backing. Again, a neighboring property changed hands, subverting their efforts.
Through all the difficulties, the renaming remained a priority for Savannah council members. They instructed city staff and the city attorney’s office to look for alternative means to address the issue.
The workaround came in November when legal experts determined city ordinance didn’t prohibit the council from stripping the name off a square or road. The mayor and aldermen couldn’t swap names, but they could remove Calhoun’s name. The council voted to make the square nameless and introduced a public process to pick a new name.
The council will adopt a new name Thursday. The favorite is the Center for Jubilee, Reconciliation and Healing’s suggestion: Susie King Taylor Square. Taylor was a Black woman born into slavery near Savannah in 1848 and who as an adult was beloved for her work as a nurse and educator.
“If we really want a new Savannah, this will be a celebrated square where we can do some truth-telling about her and others, do some reconciliation, and do some healing and repair,” Gunn said.
The Savannah city government’s deliberate approach to introducing a new name for the square has pushed the decision into election season.
Qualifying for Savannah’s mayor and City Council races is this week. On Monday, a special election to choose the Chatham County commissioner to represent the district that includes the square opens with early voting.
The square renaming saga has become a campaign issue for candidates in both elections.
On the city side, mayoral challenger Kesha Gibson-Carter, a sitting alderwoman and the leader of a minority faction on the council, blames her opponent, current Mayor Van Johnson, for a “convoluted and made-up” process “meant to further confuse the public.”
She says Johnson and his council allies should have allowed a vote to rename the square for Taylor rather than strip Calhoun’s name off the park. Johnson says that doing so would have risked legal action and denied the citizenry the opportunity to engage and have input in the process.
“I’m not for circumventing things that don’t need to be circumvented,” Johnson said.
As for the county race, Tootle — one of the Savannahians who favored retaining the Calhoun name — is among four candidates vying to finish the term of the late Larry Rivers. Rivers died of cancer in April.
Tootle, the lone Republican in the race, has filed a lawsuit against the city, citing the state law passed in 2021 that protects Georgia monuments, including those that pay tribute to the Confederacy and other pro-slavery historical figures, such as Calhoun.
He took the court action the same week he qualified for the commission seat — nearly 10 months after the council’s decision to strip the name.
Tootle has declined to comment on the lawsuit. So, too, has Savannah City Attorney Bates Lovett. The mayor, Johnson, said the state’s monuments law does not apply to the names of city squares.
He intends for the council to send a clear message to all Savannah with Thursday’s vote.
“We’re going to name it,” Johnson said. “Let the courts say differently.”