Historic Savannah Foundation hosts lecture with Patt Gunn about the naming of Taylor Square

Patt Gunn rests her hand on the new marker during the official dedication of Taylor Square on Saturday, February 10, 2024.
Patt Gunn rests her hand on the new marker during the official dedication of Taylor Square on Saturday, February 10, 2024.

When Gullah Geechee storyteller, community organizer, and Savannah native Patt Gunn was in fourth grade, she was asked to learn a poem about Christopher Columbus. But as she dug into the explorer’s history, she grew leery, openly asking ‘how can someone discover something that’s already there?’ Not long after, the precocious student found herself expelled from school for asking too many questions. Though upsetting at the time, the incident ultimately steeled Gunn to a lifetime path of social justice and truth-telling.

Gunn, whose persistence was pivotal in the naming of Susie King Taylor Square, teams up with Historic Savannah Foundation and the Davenport House to speak about her experience successfully working within the community to re-name the downtown public space.

Patt Gunn, Susie King Taylor Center for Jubilee, speaks during the official dedication of Taylor Square on Saturday, February 10, 2024.
Patt Gunn, Susie King Taylor Center for Jubilee, speaks during the official dedication of Taylor Square on Saturday, February 10, 2024.

City Talk: With renaming to Taylor Square, what’s next for expanding the Savannah story?

On Thursday, June 20, Historic Savannah Foundation hosts “Susie King Taylor and the Making of Taylor Square” at Second African Baptist Church, 123 Houston St. Doors open at 5:30 p.m. with lecture beginning at 6 p.m. The event is open to everyone and free to attend.

Sue Adler, president of HSF, is thrilled with the partnership bringing the story of Susie King Taylor to the forefront. And though HSF was minimally involved in the name change, the organization celebrates the community’s final decision.

“We really remained supporters on the sideline,” recalled Adler. “HSF felt it was a community issue, that the community voice was most important. I always return to connection and community and the story of authenticity. Patt is a master storyteller, and it’s her authenticity of sharing wisdom through stories that creates connection and keeps history alive, so we remember. In this lecture we will all learn something together as a community.”

One of the last walking squares added to the grid in 1851, Calhoun Square was originally named after John C. Calhoun, a strategist who served as Vice President under both John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. As Secretary of War under President James Monroe, Calhoun was the original architect of the Indian removal plan. Calhoun was also ardent supporter of slavery.

Flash forward to the present when Savannahians, more aware of these unsavory historical facts, are adamant about doing something proactive about them. Renaming Calhoun Square is one way to acknowledge people who have made significant contributions to Savannah but who have not been highlighted in history books.

In November 2022, Savannah City Council voted unanimously to remove the name, leaving a nameless square for nearly a year. In late August 2023, the Council voted to name it Susie King Taylor Square.

Taylor, it turns out, was a force of intellect and compassion. Born into slavery in 1848, her family sent her to live with her grandmother, a freed woman, in Savannah. There, she studied in the city’s clandestine Black schools where she quickly surpassed her peers and eventually her teachers. When the Civil War broke out, Taylor was 13 years old, and not long after, under protection of Union forces on St. Simon’s Island, she was teaching soldiers and caring for their wounds. By 1862, she was working as a nurse within the 33rd U.S. Colored Troops Infantry Regiment in the Union Army.

“I first learned about Susie King Taylor in the 1960s, but not in school,” recalled Gunn. “At the Carnegie Library on Henry Street I would go there and read and learn. That library was a blessing in our community. I read her book when I was in grade school; it was like I was opening a special, secret door.”

Not only was Taylor an academically inclined nurse and teacher, but she was also an author. In 1902, she wrote a memoir, “Reminiscences of My Life in Camp,” depicting what it was like living enslaved, then freed, and as educator and nurse. The book was life-changing for Gunn. In fact, where Gunn learned about Susie King Taylor was the same Carnegie library in which she stumbled upon many of the ugly truths about Christopher Columbus. Gunn’s life is testament to the power of curiosity, literacy and learning, and using these tools to educate and liberate.

“I’ve learned if you want to accomplish great things, you must gather people,” emphasized Gunn. “Our theme for naming Susie King Taylor Square was to apply the methodology of the Civil Rights Movement. Together we agitated our leadership, educated our leadership, and organized our people. This is how you achieve social change and social justice.”

In addition to speaking about how she organized people to support the name change, Gunn will also touch on the history of Savannah and how it relates to the trans-Atlantic slave trade. And in coming years, she anticipates a statue honoring Taylor within the square. Gunn hinted that she and her coalition are already speaking with a local sculptor about the endeavor.

“Everybody has a soul craft and mine is art of oration and organizing large groups of people around a positive message,” said Gunn. “I used to be a storyteller, but I’m a truth teller, and I don’t have to apologize. I can tell the truth so we can all heal. And I will do that until I’m not able to do it anymore.”

If you go>>

What: “Susie King Taylor and the Making of Taylor Square” Historic Savannah Foundation Lecture Series

Where: Second African Baptist Church, 123 Houston St., Savannah

When: 6 p.m., Thursday, June 20

Cost: Free to attend

This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: Historic Savannah Foundation hosts 'The Making of Taylor Square' lecture