It was a few minutes past 3 p.m. when Savannah leaders finally confronted the question that has loomed over the Southern city for years: Should John C. Calhoun stay or go?
The South Carolina statesman had no known ties to Georgia, or to its oldest city. Yet, following his death in 1850, Savannah quickly moved to honor the man who was twice a U.S. vice president, once a secretary of war, and a steadfast supporter of slavery. He went so far as to call it a “positive good.”
Within minutes, Calhoun’s fate was decided. The vote was unanimous.
“John C. Calhoun does not reflect who Savannah is,” Mayor Van Johnson declared.
The 9-0 vote Nov. 10 stripped Calhoun from one of the city’s 22 public squares. It became the latest modern-day rebuke of Calhoun, whose racist beliefs have cost him a litany of honors across the nation. His name’s been removed from honors colleges, university dorms and even a lake in Minnesota.
The most dramatic example came in 2020, when Charleston City Council cast a unanimous vote to evict a 12-foot-tall bronze statue of Calhoun that had towered above Marion Square for more than a century.
During an Oct. 27 public comment about whether to remove Calhoun’s name from the Savannah city square, seven people spoke in favor of changing the square, and three spoke in opposition. David Tootle, an eighth- generation Savannah resident, who is Black, argued Calhoun’s contributions had been unfairly reduced to his views on slavery.
“Calhoun’s name wasn’t put there because of his stance on slavery, it was put there because was a hero of the War of 1812, a champion of the Alamo,” he said.
Tootle also challenged the argument that Calhoun’s name should be moved because he didn’t have ties to Georgia saying, “Lafayette was from France, should we send him back to France?”
A handful of Georgia residents who called for Calhoun’s removal pointed to Charleston’s unanimous decision to remove its Calhoun monument, holding it up as an example to follow.
“It’s time, Savannah. It’s actually past time, Savannah,” said Christiana Turner, who identified herself as a distant relative of Calhoun.
In an almost poetic twist, Savannah could move to rename the square for Susie King Taylor, a barrier-breaking Georgia woman who was born into slavery. She made history in Calhoun’s home state of South Carolina as the first Black Army nurse during the Civil War.
Savannah City spokesman Nick Zoller said the city has plans to announce a renaming process, and stressed that it will allow community members to be actively involved.
But already, the idea of Susie King Taylor Square — or even a shortened Taylor Square — is gaining traction. Immediately following the Nov. 10 vote to strip Calhoun’s name from the city square, Alderwoman Kesha Gibson-Carter voiced her support for renaming the square after Taylor.
“I want the record to reflect that there isn’t one square in the city of Savannah that’s named for a female,” Gibson-Carter said. “And, there isn’t one square in the city of Savannah that’s named for an African American.”
For two years, a group of local activists have been calling for the renaming of Calhoun Square. Now, they are actively engaged in an education campaign to let people know more about her contributions and are urging Savannah to “Say her name: Susie King Taylor.”
“When people hear her story, they fall in love with her,” said Patt Gunn, co-founder of the Center for Jubilee, Reconciliation and Healing group that led efforts to strip Calhoun’s name from the public square in Savannah.
Removing Calhoun’s name was a difficult undertaking, which required gathering signatures from 51 percent of the square’s surrounding property owners. Gunn said this was a challenge in a historic district where homes were bought and sold multiple times.
But Gunn, who also works as a tour guide who tells the stories of enslaved Africans in Savannah, said she feels confident about Taylor’s odds.
“She is the daughter of Georgia and the Carolinas,” Gunn said. “She mattered to the nation.”
Born into slavery on a Georgia plantation in 1848, Taylor grew up in the Deep South at a time when freedom was a privilege, racial equality was a dream and obtaining an education as a Black person was a crime.
Encouraged by her grandmother, Taylor defied Georgia’s slave law and learned how to read and write. She attended secret underground schools taught by free Black women in Savannah and wrapped her books in paper to hide her illegal lessons from police.
When she was just 14, Taylor become the first African American known to teach at a freedman’s school in Georgia. But her accomplishments would not end there.
In 1862, when Union forces took Fort Pulaski, she escaped with her family to Beaufort, where the 1st South Carolina Volunteer Infantry was formed. It was the nation’s first all-Black regiment and Taylor would join their fight for freedom officially as a “laundress.” In reality, she was a nurse, dressing wounds and caring for soldiers as they tried to stave off disease.
She documented these experiences in her book “Reminiscences of My Life in Camp.” It is the only Civil War memoir written by a Black woman.
“It seems strange how our aversion to seeing suffering is overcome in war,” she wrote, “how we are able to see the most sickening sights, such as men with their limbs blown off and mangled by the deadly shells, without a shudder; and instead of turning away, how we hurry to assist in alleviating their pain, bind up their wounds, and press the cool water to their parched lips, with feelings only of sympathy and pity.”
With her writings, Taylor also urged history to remember the thousands of Black soldiers and Black nurses who sacrificed their lives for the war cause and for a greater hope that America would finally become one nation, indivisible.
Currently, Taylor’s legacy is honored in Savannah in two ways, with her name appearing on a local charter school and a water taxi.
But with Calhoun’s removal, Gunn said it is time for Savannah to remember Taylor in the public square.
“It took us two years to educate our City Council that this is not right,” Gunn said of Calhoun’s namesake in the downtown square. “This was about truth-telling and healing.”
The mayor has cautioned that no decision has been made and confirmed the public will get its say.
“This is a process that did not take place in 1851, but we have the opportunity to do it now,” Johnson said. “We won’t rush the process. We’ll take our time. We’ll hear the voices, we’ll research the names, the places, the concepts.”
It’s up to Savannah to decide its future.