Preserving Our Past: Tybee MLK to Host 2nd Annual Tybee Lazaretto Day

A woman standing in front of a sign that says Lazaretto.

Preserving Our Past: Tybee MLK to Host
2nd Annual Tybee Lazaretto Day 

On Saturday, March 25 from 12 to 6 p.m. at Tybee Memorial Park, human rights organization Tybee MLK will host their second annual Lazaretto Day in remembrance of the enslaved Africans who entered the Savannah port through Tybee. 

“Tybee Lazaretto Day is a commemoration of the enslaved Africans who arrived to Tybee,” said Tybee MLK co-founder and coordinator Julia Pearce.  

A little-known aspect of coastal Georgia’s complicated and, sometimes, sordid past, is the fact that Tybee was home to a quarantine encampment for enslaved Africans arriving to the U.S. during the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Many American port cities established these quarantine sites, which were called lazarettos, an Italian term meaning ‘pest’ or ‘quarantine house’ taking root from the biblical Lazarus. The lazarettos served as a place to house and treat imported slaves to prevent disease from spreading among the local inhabitants. In Tybee’s case, slaves who lived would be taken to Savannah to be sold, while the bodies of those who died were unceremoniously cast into the mud.  

“I had lived on Tybee for 20 years before I even knew that Tybee was an international slave port, although we have historical societies, preservation societies and a bunch of intelligent people. We never talk about that [segment] of American history that started it all off. So once we found out about that, we thought that there should be some type of commemoration for the lives that were lost,” Pearce explained. 

Tybee MLK, which advocates for social justice and equity, has been working with the community to uncover and propagate the history of Tybee’s lazaretto.  

“The lazaretto was built by the Georgia Assembly before Georgia was a state . . . back in 1746. They said because of the frequent importation of negroes to our providence, we need a place where they can be housed and treated before they go into Savannah to be sold. . . The fact that the lazaretto was built specifically for the Transatlantic Slave Trade is worth studying,” she shared.  

Tybee MLK has collaborated with several organizations including the Tybee Historical Society, the City of Tybee, Georgia Southern University and the Hillary family to form the Lazaretto Creek Coalition, which is working to preserve the island’s Black history.  

“Over the last three years, during COVID, Tybee MLK, Georgia Southern University and Tybee Historical Society have worked together to put together the first Tybee Black history trail,” said Pearce. 

The trail will lead participants on an independent tour through important sites relevant to the island’s black history including the lazaretto. The trail will be available through a QR code, which will be unveiled at Tybee Lazaretto Day. There will also be signage marking the significant locations featured in the tour.  

Pearce thanks the City of Tybee, Chatham County Commission Chair Chester Ellis, the City of Savannah, Mayor Van Johnson, Alderwoman Kesha Gibson-Carter and the Lazaretto Creek Coalition for their collective efforts in bringing Tybee’s Black history trail to fruition.  

In addition to the announcement of the historic trail, Tybee Lazaretto Day will have many other exciting and engaging festivities. There will be art, music, food, afro-centric vendors and much more.  

“Nonprofits will be there. The National Park Service for Fort Pulaski will be there. The Historical Society of Tybee Island will be there. . . We will have dancing. We’ll have drummers, and we’ll have speakers. Our keynote speaker is Dr. Amir Jamal Toure from Georgia Southern University,” Pearce stated. 

For the first time, Tybee MLK is presenting a special award during the event as well. 

“We’re giving an award to journalist Wanda Lloyd [because] . . . she represents the struggle of our people. She represents what our people lived for when dying would have been easier. . . And so, we’re going to give her the first annual Lazaretto Legacy Award,” she explained.  

Pearce encourages the public to come out and attend Tybee Lazaretto Day to honor the thousands of enslaved people who played an essential part in the making of America.  

“You should come out to Lazaretto Day if you love history, if you love Georgia, if you love your children understanding the true nature of America. . . It started with the fact that they used enslaved people to build the nation. And these enslaved people had a history even before slavery began, a rich, wonderful history that has been negated. . . People should come out to hear the whole story of what an amazing, iron-steel backboned people we are,” she expressed.  

Pearce is certainly looking forward to Tybee Lazaretto Day, but beyond the event, Tybee MLK will keep working to protect, promote and preserve the cultural and historical legacy of the Black community locally. On April 20, members of the organization will be traveling to Ghana in an effort to uncover the time-honored ties between coastal Georgia and coastal West Africa. 

“We are going to West Africa, Ghana to the Door of No Return (a former slave-trade outpost through which millions of Africans were stolen to the U.S.),” said Pearce, “We will be there for six weeks. The purpose of this trip is to link coastal Georgia with coastal West Africa. The Door of No Return will be opened for our people to return if they so choose. We will be making avenues for cultural, historic, educational and tourism connections with Ghana.” 

Pearce is looking forward to sharing the information gained from the trip with the local community. She’s also looking forward to making information about the lazaretto available online via the Tybee MLK, City of Tybee and Georgia Historical Society websites. She believes that the current information age provides everyone with the invaluable opportunity to learn about history: 

“We live in a time of information. That information is readily available if we choose to seek it. We are in love with our telephones. . . We should use some of that time to study . . . the true history of America that . . . we must reclaim.” 

For more information about Tybee Lazaretto Day, click here.