SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) - Did you know that there were free blacks living in Savannah as early as the 1790’s? That’s before President Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves. As we celebrate Black History, we’ll learn more about how they gained their freedom before Emancipation.
Those free blacks who came to Savannah from Santo Domingo in 1790 lived on Charlton Street in what is now known as the Beach Institute neighborhood. In 1810, 40 percent of Savannah’s population was enslaved.
“There were roughly 533 free blacks and people of color. The difference is, free blacks would have been freed by the last will and testament of their master. Some of the families came with their owners and were freed once they got here in the case of the Mirault family.
"I can trace it back to 1790 coming year from Santo Domingo,“ explained Vaughnette Goode- Walker, the owner of Footprints of Savannah Tour Company.
She also researched the Sabbaties, another free black family.
“When Clement Sabbatie came to town, he was a barber. He met a widow, Lucy Gary. She was originally a Mirault. They married and had eight sons. Clement trained all of them to be barbers. The sons that stayed in Savannah, operated a barber shop on Habersham Street. They only cut white hair. That was an important feature because they were of the mulatto race or class,” Walker said.
In fact, Walker explained the first Catholic mass in Savannah was conducted at the home of a free black man, Jean Michelle Mirault.
“Eventually, we would end up meeting French-speaking Catholics free people of color from Santo Domingo. They actually eventually had a seat on the floor at the Cathedral," Walker added.
The Miraults owned a business and although they were people of color, slaves also worked for them.
“There bakery was on Broughton Street. In the business, they would’ve owned urban people to do the work. Please understand urban slaves were a workforce. Urban slaves had skills. they were not domestics,” Walker said.
During those times, there were also secret schools for blacks right here in Savannah, although it was illegal to educate blacks then, but because so many of them wanted to learn, Walker explains, it was no surprise when General William Sherman met with those 20 black ministers 1865 - they not only wanted land, but also education. Because of that desire, in 1867, the Beach Institute was created to educate newly freed slaves.