Historian, guide offers clues to Calhoun Square's past

Published: Jul. 19, 2011 at 8:06 PM EDT|Updated: Aug. 9, 2011 at 11:03 AM EDT
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SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) - In his line of work, Tobias McGriff has come to accept skeptics. But after five years of research for his Blue Orb Ghost Tour in Savannah, he's confident about the location of the largest unexhumed slave cemetery of the 18th century.

That's not often included in the historical text about Calhoun Square. But the local historian and radio host says it was confirmed as recently as 2004, when a utility company project on the southeast corner of the square unearthed a piece of the past.

"They go down about 4 feet trying to install a meter and they pull out the first skull. And with it came from the ground - confirmation of what was long believed to be beneath it. We knew it was in this area, but picking it up in the square, I don't think anyone had an idea it was actually in the square," McGriff said. "They have been able to piece together that there are maybe 1,000 bodies in and around this square."

He said that what they've been able to piece put together is that the burials that done there were without the a coffin, they were overlapped and  makeshift and were not announced.

Unmarked burial grounds are inevitable throughout a city said to be built upon its dead. The nature of the one under Calhoun Square is symbolic of a distant and different time.

It was a time when Savannah was smaller - the original southern border being Broughton Street - and still very much divided.

"When burials were taking place, they were actually done sometimes in back yards. Well, the city said, 'No you have to bury folks outside the city limits.' So they started to do that. Well, in that timeframe, Calhoun Square which wasn't laid out until 1851, it was well outside of the city limits. So, taking into account that slaves got last priority, they were on the outskirts of the city, just like we're on the outskirts of the square now," McGriff said.

The long-hidden history between Taylor and Gordon streets on Abercorn Street just might change the boundaries of Calhoun Square's identity.

"There's so much history here that could be kind of be put forth. and i think maybe because those discoveries are so new and those writing are so old, there needs to be an update," he said.

McGriff said he has heard discussion of a possible historical marker for the Calhoun Square grave site - but that exhuming remains from there is unlikely because of the precedent it would set for what many believe are burial sites under much of the city.

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