Kwesi DeGraft-Hanson knows what slavery smelled like.
He was 14 years old and on a trip with friends to Cape Coast Castle, located along the shore of his homeland, the African nation of Ghana. He arrived thinking castles were “associated with kings and queens and knights in shining armor.”
He left with the “scent of suffering” in his nostrils.
“The fort is built of porous stone that absorbs odors, and when you descend into the dungeons, you can still smell the sweat and other bodily functions of thousands of men who were kept there before being put on ships for the Americas,” DeGraft-Hanson said. “The memory of that smell is still with me.”
Researchers tell us the brain remembers scent much more accurately than pictures and other sensory stimuli. So it was for DeGraft-Hanson in 2007 when he sought out a nondescript site in West Savannah once home to a horse racing course. He parked his car, got out and walked.
All of the sudden, he was that young boy in Cape Coast Castle again.
A familiar, tragic smell
The largest sale of enslaved people in American history took place at Savannah’s Ten Broeck Race Course on March 2 and 3, 1859. The owner of two Coastal Georgia plantations auctioned off 436 men, women and children in an atrocity advertised beforehand in newspapers throughout the South and chronicled by a reporter for a now-defunct New York City newspaper.
The abomination would come to be known as the “Weeping Time,” and as DeGrant-Hanson visited the site for the first time, a familiar smell brought tears to his eyes.
“It was like being in Cape Coast Castle all over again,” he said.
The scent has become a constant for DeGraft-Hanson over the last 14 years. The City of Savannah and the Georgia Historical Society erected a marker noting the historical significance of the “Weeping Time” in 2008, and DeGrant-Hanson has made increased awareness of the “Weeping Time” a personal mission.
Four years ago, he organized an annual commemoration ceremony to honor the enslaved people sold that day, an observance that is among the most emotionally moving on Savannah’s always-crowded events calendar. This year’s “Weeping Time” remembrance was held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
DeGrant-Hanson’s “Weeping Time” work has sparked a greater vision for the future. He’s developed plans for a memorial that would honor not just the 436 enslaved people sold in Savannah 162 years ago this week but the 400,000 sent to North America between 1619 and 1866.
And he wants to build it in West Savannah just across Interstate 516 from Brock Elementary School, in the approximate area of the track’s stables, where the enslaved were housed in the days leading up to the “Weeping Time.”
A more complete retelling
A landscape architect by trade, DeGraft-Hanson has even designed the memorial. A curving, grey glass wall with reflecting pools at each end would be the centerpiece. The curved wall would bear the names of all enslaved persons logged in plantation documents and other lists.
Savannah is a city that revels in its history, and this is a moment when many are advocating for a more complete and inclusive telling of the Savannah story, including our darkest, most abhorrent days. The memorial DeGraft-Hanson proposes would bring a broad appreciation to the “Weeping Time” and the plight of enslaved people.
Weeping Time Memorial Proposal | Atlantic Slave Trade | Slavery
His vision is far from a reality. He doesn’t own the land where his memorial would sit and has yet to approach the family that does. He’s drafted a proposal for the memorial and created an artist’s rendering of how it would look but has not raised a penny toward funding it. He’s pitched the idea to some local community leaders but hasn’t mounted a full-fledged marketing campaign to garner support.
He’s still got that “scent of suffering” in his nose, though, and it’s driving him to do more. On this anniversary of the “Weeping Time,” Savannahians should consider joining DeGrant-Hanson in his mission.
dam Van Brimmer is the opinion editor of the Savannah Morning News, where this column originally appeared.