Georgia City Strips Name of Slavery Advocate From Plaza

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SAVANNAH, Georgia (TBEN) — Leaders of Georgia’s oldest city voted Thursday to remove the name of a former U.S. vice president and vocal slavery advocate from the public square named in his honor more than 170 years ago.

Calhoun Square, which was evicted in 1851, was named after John C. Calhoun, a prominent politician from neighboring South Carolina, who spent decades in Washington in Congress before his death in 1850 and as vice president under Presidents John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson.

Calhoun was also outspoken in his support of slavery in the decades leading up to the Civil War. That has made him the target of racial justice advocates in Savannah and elsewhere in recent years who wanted to remove statues and other honors for the Confederacy and white supremacists from public spaces.

The Savannah City Council voted unanimously on Thursday afternoon to remove Calhoun’s name from the plaza. The mayor said it could take a year for city officials to make a decision on a new name.

“John Calhoun had a phenomenal career as an American statesman. On that side, he’s a legend,” said Savannah Mayor Van Johnson, who nonetheless said he supported the removal of Calhoun’s name because his views on racing “do not reflect Savannah in 2022.”

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“I think Mr. Calhoun’s views really promoted, supported, and promoted slavery,” said Johnson, who, like 54% of Savannah’s population, is black.

Calhoun Square was one of the last of two dozen public squares established in historic downtown Savannah between 1733 and 1851. With towering live oaks and flowering azaleas framing benches in the center, the square is surrounded by Greek Revival houses and two city landmarks – Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church, consecrated in 1890, and the 1855 Massie Common School House, one of the oldest public school buildings of Georgia.

One block to the north is Clary’s Cafe, the restaurant featured in author John Berendt’s 1994 bestseller “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.”

Before Savannah acted, Calhoun had been stripped of honor in his home state of South Carolina. City officials in Charleston dismantled a statue of Calhoun in one of the plazas in 2020, and Clemson University removed his name from the honors college the same year.

In the early 1800s, Calhoun became known as “The Cast-Iron Man” for his unyielding support for Southern states’ rights. He called slavery a “positive good” and said in speeches to the US Senate floor in the 1830s that Southern slaves were better off than free blacks in the North. With his pro-slavery ‘Calhoun Doctrine’ he led the south into secession before dying in 1850.

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Some in Savannah opposed the removal of Calhoun’s name from the plaza, where it had long been printed in bold white on signs and on a metal plaque in a brick walkway.

Calhoun earned the honor through his four decades of service in Washington, said Andy Calhoun, a Savannah resident who says he is a descendant of John C. Calhoun’s brother. In addition to serving in both houses of Congress and as vice president under two presidents, John C. Calhoun had also been a United States Secretary of War and Secretary of State.

“It’s obvious why the city of Savannah honored his statesmanship,” said Calhoun, 69. “He was not honored for his views on domestic slavery.”

He added: “Why people are so determined to revisit history, I just don’t get it.”

Savannah guide Patt Gunn, one of the main proponents of the Calhoun Square renaming, applauded the council’s decision on a day when Tropical Storm Nicole brought gusty winds and occasional heavy rain to the Georgia coast.

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“I think it should be a day of cleansing, because of the rain,” said Gunn, a Savannah native and slave. “And by removing Calhoun, it will be part of a healing process.”

Gunn has spent the past two years leading a group of attorneys calling for a new name for Calhoun Square.

A major hurdle for the group was a city ordinance requiring a majority of property owners in the square to agree to a name change. Gunn said her coalition got the required signatures three times, just to see supporters’ homes sell to new owners. That denied their request for a name change before city officials could act.

Johnson and allies in the city council agreed on a temporary solution. Their vote Thursday was solely to remove Calhoun’s name from the square. The mayor says he plans to give property owners and other residents the opportunity to come up with a new name for the square at a later date.

“If it takes a year to do it, I’m not mad about it,” Johnson said in an interview.

The mayor asked Savannah’s city manager to immediately remove signs in the plaza bearing Calhoun’s name. Until a new name, he said, it should be called “the square formerly known as Calhoun Square.”