My Town: Patt Gunn’s Historic Savannah

The historian and tour guide recommends the best sites for understanding the city’s history—plus where to fill up on fresh vegetables, Southern meals, and ocean views

A portrait of a woman standing in a park.

Photo: Sam Worley

Patt Gunn in the newly renamed Taylor Square.

One sunny morning recently, Patt Gunn sat on a bench in one of Savannah’s historic squares and pointed to a nearby church. As a child, Gunn did homework in the square while her mother cooked in the church kitchen. When she finished, her mom would give her a little money to get a snack from the store down the block—where Gunn had to stand outside to get served. Growing up during Jim Crow, she wasn’t allowed in.

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Back then, the square in which Gunn did her homework bore the name of John C. Calhoun, the South Carolina politician who forcefully defended slavery. But earlier this month, Calhoun Square officially became Taylor Square. Its new namesake? Susie King Taylor, who was born enslaved, secretly learned to read and write, served as a Union nurse during the Civil War, taught free Black children in Savannah—and then published the only wartime memoir written by a Black woman. “I think she’s an American she-ro,” Gunn said. 

photo: Sam Worley
Taylor Square.

She should know: Gunn led the three-year campaign to get the square renamed. Calling herself a “daughter of the soil of Savannah,” Gunn is a well-known activist, storyteller, and guide whose tours explore the history of slavery and liberation in the city. Here are some of the sights she recommends, with stops for sustenance—and swimming—along the way.

Where history is underfoot

Gunn—aka Sistah Patt—launched Underground Tours of Savannah in 2017. One current offering, a partnership with Kelly Tours and Gray Line Savannah, is the Savannah Slavery to Freedom Tour, which hits downtown sites like Johnson Square, where people were sold on the auction block. “I take them from point to point,” Gunn says. “This is where they disembarked. This is where they were held. This is the auction.” It also stops at Second African Baptist Church, where General William Tecumseh Sherman read the Emancipation Proclamation in 1864—and where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a version of his “I Have a Dream” speech. 

Another tour, on Fridays, ends at Simple Soul Cafe, whose menu mixes Southern faves—baked chicken, pound cake—with lighter options like salads and smoothies. Gunn brings in a storyteller who, like her, is a member of the Gullah-Geechee community. “We have the best meal ever, and then we tell stories,” she says.

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Gunn also recommends the Green-Meldrim House—the elegant Gothic Revival mansion where Sherman stayed—and First African Baptist Church, the oldest Black church in North America. And of course, stop by the newly renamed Taylor Square, which conceals a fraught history of its own; both this and nearby Whitefield Square were laid out atop former burial grounds for enslaved people. Leafy, picturesque Taylor Square is now the first of Savannah’s twenty-two remaining squares to be named for a woman or a person of color. “Of course, my mom and all that generation is gone,” Gunn says. “But can you imagine them thinking that this is going to be a square named in honor of a woman and an African American?”

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Fuel for exploring

At Simple Soul, Gunn especially likes the veggies—but there are other places in Savannah, like Forsyth Farmers Market, where she’ll seek them out. She also drives out to Monteith Road, an area where Black farming traditions date to Reconstruction, to drop by the roadside stand at Promised Land Farm. Collards are a specialty here, though they sell other greens, muscadines, melons, and much more. 

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Then there’s the opposite of vegetables: “My favorite place where you kind of forget about your diet is Geneva’s,” Gunn says. That’s Geneva’s Famous Chicken and Cornbread, an off-the-beaten-path spot that serves some of the best, juiciest fried chicken around. (Currently closed for renovation, it’s set to reopen soon.) For seafood, Gunn suggests going downtown to Vic’s on the River or to Belford’s Seafood and Steaks, where the menu features she-crab soup and whole red snapper.

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Out on the water

“I love anything to do with water,” says Gunn, who visits Tybee Island often. “We’ll do day trips on boats to go dolphin watching.” On Tybee, one popular dolphin tour is Captain Derek’s. The island, too, has a rich Black history—check out the self-guided Black History Trail—but Gunn also just loves to swim. She recommends the relatively quiet beaches on the southern end, where her brother lives: “He’s dropping his crab baskets, I’m going to jump in the water.”