Taylor, Susie King
TAYLOR, Susie King
Born 6 August 1848, Isle of Wight, Georgia; died after 1902
Daughter of Hagar and Raymond Baker; married Edward King, 1862 (died 1866); Russell Taylor, 1879
Susie King Taylor was the first of nine children born to slaves on the Grest family plantation. When she was seven years old, her grandmother took her to Savannah. There Taylor learned to read and write at the home of a free black woman. She used her knowledge to make life more bearable for her grandmother and other urban slaves by forging passes for them to be out after the nine o'clock curfew.
While on a trip to St. Catherine's Island in 1862, Taylor and her family came within Union lines and asked for protection. She was then asked by the commander to take charge of a school for freedmen on St. Simon's Island. In August 1862 Captain C. T. Trowbridge came to St. Simon's to recruit freed slaves for a new regiment, the first U.S. Colored Troops, later the 33rd U.S. Colored Infantry. Taylor and her new husband enlisted. Technically, Taylor was enrolled as a laundress, but according to her reminiscences, her duties were far greater: she taught the soldiers to read and write, helped them clean their muskets and prepare ammunition, cooked the food, and nursed the wounded. She and King served with the occupation forces in Charleston, Augusta, and Savannah before being mustered out in February 1866.
Taylor's life after the war was a succession of hardships. King died in September 1866, leaving her broke and pregnant. She tried teaching, first in a school she and King had opened in Savannah; later she taught in a school in Liberty County and then in a night school for adult freedmen in Savannah. But Taylor's teaching career was less than successful and in the 1870s, she worked as a laundress, first in Georgia and later in Boston. In 1879 she married Russell Taylor, a free black man of Boston.
For the rest of her life, Taylor's major interest was the lot of veterans of the Union army, especially of its colored regiments. In 1886 she helped found the Boston Corps of the Women's Relief Corps, an auxiliary of the Grand Army of the Republic. She became its president in 1893 and compiled a survey of the Massachusetts veterans of the war.
Taylor's autobiography, Reminiscences of My Life in Camp, was published in 1902 with an introduction by her old friend and commander, Thomas Wentworth Higginson. It is a brief but fascinating look at the Civil War and Reconstruction from the perspective of a former slave. Taylor skips quickly over her life under slavery, a subject of much interest to and speculation by historians. Nevertheless, a sense of excitement—a feeling she and others were participants in a great experiment—comes through vividly. The reader can sense her fear of capture by Confederate soldiers and her joy at the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation. Taylor's pride in the loyalty and bravery of the colored troops, despite lack of pay and hazardous front-line duty to which blacks were routinely assigned, is also evident.
Reminiscences of My Life in Camp ends on a somber note. On a trip to Louisiana to visit her dying son, she was subjected to the indignities of segregation on trains, in hotels, and on the street. (Although segregation was still widely practiced in both North and South for many years after the war, Taylor found her adopted home of Massachusetts a paradise in comparison to the South.) Saddened and angered, she asked: "I wonder if our white fellow men realize the true sense or meaning of brotherhood? For 200 years we had toiled for them; the war of 1861 came and was ended, and we thought our race was forever free from bondage, and that the two races could live in unity with each other, but when we read almost every day of what is being done to my race by some whites in the South, I sometimes ask, 'Was the war in vain? Has it brought freedom, in the full sense of the word, or has it not made our condition more hopeless?"' The question is still pertinent today.
Cornish, D. T., The Sable Arm (1956). Higginson, T. W., Army Life in a Black Regiment (1870). McPherson, J. M., ed., The Negro's Civil War (1965). Pierce, E., "The Freedmen at Port Royal," in Atlantic Monthly (Sept. 1863). Rose, W. L., Rehearsal for Reconstruction: The Port Royal Experiment (1964).
—JANET E. KAUFMAN