Otis Johnson is in his second term as Mayor of Savannah. He previously served on the Savannah City Council and the Savannah-Chatham County School Board and was executive director of the Chatham Savannah Youth Futures Authority. He retired as Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences at Savannah State University in May 2002.
"... the greatest legacy of Oglethorpe and the Trustees was their desire to create a place where people in England who had fallen on hard times could come to start a new life."
July 22, 2008 Building on Our Legacies Otis Johnson, Mayor, City of Savannah
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“A city upon a hill.” I think of progressive places when I hear that phrase. The legacies instituted by General James Edward Oglethorpe, Savannah’s founders, and the Trustees of Georgia 270 years ago, I believe, laid the foundation that has led Savannah to exemplify that phrase.
When Oglethorpe landed he had with him a completed plan to develop the city. Faithfully implemented, it resulted in Savannah becoming the first planned city in North America. The plan ensured open spaces throughout the city, our famous “squares,” that are the center pieces around which the city was built. Nearly three centuries later, the legacy of a commitment to thoughtful planning continues as elements of the original plan are still being used as Savannah grows and we redevelop her neighborhoods.
Our legacy of cultural diversity began when Oglethorpe befriended the original inhabitants, the Yamacraw Indians. A tolerant attitude toward immigration allowed Savannah to become the port of entry for people from all over Europe. Throughout its early years Savannah welcomed thousands of Irish, Scots, Germans, Poles, Greeks, Italians, and French Huguenots. Jews came to escape persecution in Spain. Haitians fought along side the French, Poles and Irish against the British in the Battle of Savannah in 1779. And while slavery was initially forbidden by the colony’s charter, African slaves were bought over from South Carolina, Africa and the Caribbean to help build the city. This legacy of diversity continues to be celebrated in the 21st Century as we now welcome people from Eastern Europe, China, Korea, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, India, Africa, the Caribbean, Mexico and Latin America. The ethnic and cultural richness found here has allowed Savannah to truly become a cosmopolitan city.
I believe that Savannah’s history has been enriched by the entrepreneurial spirit of the Trustees. Even though their efforts in growing mulberry trees to host silk worms to make silk failed, planting and harvesting rice was successful for a time. The cotton gin was invented on a plantation just outside of the city and revolutionized the cotton industry. The city developed its port, became a world export/import leader and was home of the first steamship to cross the Atlantic Ocean. That spirit continues today as local companies are making products from the sap of pine trees and are trying to develop fuels using wood chips. And a new generation is producing state-of-the-art information technology products and services on an international scale.
But the greatest legacy of Oglethorpe and the Trustees was their desire to create a place where people in England who had fallen on hard times could come and start a new life. You see, Georgia and its first city were originally populated by many of England’s poor and unemployed. Our founders succeeded in that quest and that noble legacy fuels our efforts today to reduce poverty, improve education, increase affordable housing, improve workforce skills and develop entrepreneurship among minorities and women.
Savannah’s founders provided a rich legacy in which we could grow and prosper. I believe they would be proud of us today as Savannah truly sits upon a big, symbolic hill.