Unbroken Ground

img_0422A brief history of the land of Savannah State

The land that is now home to Savannah State University has seen a great deal. It sustained Native Americans, signaled new hope for immigrants, endured the enslavement of its ancestors and, finally, became the gathering place for free thought and education among the descendants of those same communities.

Before colonists arrived from Europe, these nearby waters were scouted by local tribes. They gathered oysters and fished. The word Tybee comes from the Gaulle word for “salt meadow.”

Once General James Oglethorpe designed a thriving city center for Savannah, prospects expanded to the surrounding areas. The port needed more merchandise to send back to England in order to grow the economy and cement Savannah’s long-term future.

To meet this ambitious goal, crops would need to be grown in much higher quantities.

The city of Savannah was originally founded as a social and religious utopia, mainly to attract as many adventurous people as possible to inhabit the area. The earliest charter specified no slavery, no rum and no lawyers. All religions were welcomed.

The forces in Parliament overturned the founding principles in the name of money, in spite of Oglethorpe’s vehement dissention. He spoke before the English lawmakers and declared, “Slavery is against the Gospel, as well as the fundamental law of England. We refused as trustees to make a law permitting such a horrid crime.” Once he returned to England and retired his post, he was no longer able to prevent the passage of the bill allowing slavery in Georgia.

Plantations sprung up along the coast and estuarine waterways. Using fresh and brackish water sources and the long growing season, coastal plantations favored rice, building earthwork flood areas that could be drained for harvest and planting.

The sodden, difficult labor was done by slaves, bought and sold in the same city center that had officially banned slavery.

For some, Placentia is a Pleasant Place to Live

The Placentia Plantation was situated on some high ground along a creek in Thunderbolt. In 1786, Josiah Tattnall, a founding father of Savannah, sold 850 acres to John McQueen, but it would be more than 20 years before the land was truly cultivated. Most notable is the sharp increase in land prices in just three years. In 1797, 280 acres in Savannah sold for $3,000 ($54,000 today). That same land was sold for $9,594 in 1800 – or $175,281 today.

Planting began in earnest in the early 19th century under the ownership of John Postell Williamson. He began purchasing parcels in 1803 and cultivating it for rice, cotton and corn.

In 1808, Williamson was elected mayor of Savannah and began passing ordinances, seemingly as they struck him. An arbitrary ruling in 1809 included a stiff fine for smoking “segars” or pipes “in any of the streets, lanes, alleys, wharves or public squares within the city of Savannah.” The penalty was $2 for a white person, or $1 for “person of color” — only a “person of color” could be given up to 39 lashes for nonpayment of this fee, however.

By 1820, he was wealthy, owned several plantations in the area and maintained his role in the civic government. In the census that year he also claimed to own 280 slaves. Despite being successful and somewhat influential, it doesn’t seem he was particularly respected in the community. He is named more than once in the minutes of the board of health as being officially on notice to clean up his properties. He skipped jury duty, was fined $40 and had his name printed in the paper for it.

In the same year, ads and notices begin to appear that seem to portend a shaky foundation. He is in search of new warehouses for his goods. He announces the arrival and sale of imported Madiera wine in consistently more desperate ads, until, months later, he is forced to sell it at a large discount. Williamson even placed an ad selling Spanish doubloons.

By 1822 he was liquidating his holdings, announcing the sale of large swaths of land as well as slaves and horses. John P. Williamson died in 1843 with no direct heir. His wife had died in 1819 and they had no surviving children. (Interestingly, women in America could own and inherit property – a right that wouldn’t be given in England until much later). Perhaps following his litigious and contentious example, the 12 potential heirs fought over the estate until the court ruled in 1851 that they had to distribute everything equally.

An obituary or honorary profile on Williamson upon his death, if it existed, was not found.

Map of Placentia Plantation, 1853, drawn by William Hughes. Georgia Historical Society, Savannah Ga.

Reclamation and Transformation

In 1853, William Hughes surveyed the land and divided it into 12 equal parcels of 65 acres each. The long, narrow plots ran from Skidaway Road to the marsh. These plots would eventually make up most of the campus of Savannah State.

In stark contrast to John Williamson, Peter Wiltberger Meldrim was a well-liked and highly-respected town father. He grew up in the Green-Meldrim House on Madison Square. He witnessed his family invite Union General William T. Sherman into their home as part of a bid to save Savannah from the charred fate of Atlanta. At a young age, he learned the value of compromise and respect.

He graduated with honors from UGA in 1868 and took up the practice of law in Savannah. He was elected alderman in 1891 and mayor in 1897. On his watch, roads were paved, the police barracks were expanded and the fire department received new buildings.

A 1913 city directory notes, “He was every ready to give his vote and his voice to those measures or to those statutes which seemed to him to be essential to individual and public welfare. In all his acts he reflected liberality and intelligence of his constituents, and for this was beloved and admired by all who witnessed his course.”

Meldrim family papers, 1891. Georgia Historical Society, Savannah Ga.

Known to be an active supporter of education for all, he was requested by Georgia Governor William J. Northen to serve on the commission for the new “negro college.” A letter dated January 20, 1891, from Northen notes, “I will not appoint any man that does not express himself in full sympathy with the purposes of the act.”

Meldrim would be instrumental throughout the early years of Georgia State Industrial College for Colored Youths. He assisted in orchestrating the donation (and later, sale) of land for the college to be built and expanded. He used his standing in the community to help the college gain respect. One of the first buildings on campus was named in his honor.

There is a letter among Meldrim’s papers in the Georgia Historical Society’s archives from Reverend J. S. Flipper. It is dated August 1920 and is vague in its meaning. At the time, Flipper was the presiding bishop of the sixth district for the African Methodist Episcopal Church. It says, in part:

“It is from the depth of my heart that I am writing to thank you for certain interest that you have shown me by favors which I cannot utter. I have known you for a number of years and have always admired you for the interest you have shown in my people.”

No other notes suggest what the favors were – only that to put them into writing might be dangerous for either, or both, of the men.

When Meldrim died in 1933, President Benjamin Hubert expressed his deepest sympathies on behalf of the Georgia State Industrial College. He wrote, “He maintained a deep and abiding interest, not only in the college itself, but in the colored people as a whole. He believed in justice and fair play. … But we feel that his brilliant career and his outstanding service to Savannah, Chatham County, the State and Nation will ever remain as a priceless heritage to the Georgia State Industrial College and to all who recognize character as the only true basis for individual and national progress and security.”

From Native Americans, to enslaved people, to brilliant students and professors, the place that is now Savannah State has been home to many. The ancestors who toiled could never have imagined the place of light and learning it has become.

This article first appeared in Impressions, Fall 2016