by Andy Hall
Duke University Library
Susie King Taylor (1848-1912) was born in Liberty County, Georgia in 1848. Her mother was a house servant to a wealthy planter family, who allowed her to send her oldest children to live with her mother in Savannah. In Savannah she learned to read and write, and in the spring of 1862, in her early teens, escaped to Union forces occupying the Sea Islands of Georgia. With the support of Federal officers, she organized a school of freed slave children, and taught adults in the evening. While there, she met and married Edward King, a sergeant in the First South Carolina Volunteer Infantry (later the 33rd U.S. Colored Troops), one of the first African-American regiments to see military service, even before the U.S. government officially authorized the recruitment of black regiments.
Although she was officially classed as a "laundress," Susie King served as a nurse, helped maintain weapons, and—most important—organized and taught classes for the soldiers. When the war ended, she returned to Savannah, where she organized a school for freed children. After Edward King's death in 1866, she organized two more schools which she supported by charging a small tuition. She lost her students when free schools were opened in the town, and eventually took a job as a domestic servant for a wealthy white family. She moved with them to Boston, where she remained for the rest of her life, making only brief visits to the South, and eventually married a man named Russell Taylor. In 1902, with the encouragement of the former commander of the 33rd U.S.C.T., she published her memoir, Reminiscences of My Life in Camp with the 33d United States Colored Troops. More recently, Taylor's life has been profiled in Catherine Clinton's essay, "Susie King Taylor: 'I Gave My Services Willingly,'" part of Ann Short Chirhart and Betty Wood's collection, Georgia Women: Their Lives and Times.
This passage from Taylor's autobiography describes her early life and education. Georgia prohibited the education of slaves but, as in many other places, the African American population of Savannah, slave and free, created its own underground schools and found other ways to thwart the authorities.
I was born under the slave law in Georgia, in 1848, and was brought up by my grandmother in Savannah. There were three of us with her, my younger sister and brother. My brother and I being the two eldest, we were sent to a friend of my grandmother, Mrs. Woodhouse, a widow to learn to read and write. She was a free woman and lived on Bay Lane, between Habersham and Price streets, about half a mile from my house. We went every day about nine o'clock, with our books wrapped in paper to prevent the police or white persons from seeing them. We went in, one at a time, through the gate, into the yard, to the L kitchen, which was the schoolroom. She had twenty-five or thirty children whom she taught, assisted by her daughter Mary Jane. The neighbors would see us going in sometimes, but they supposed we were there learning trades, as it was the custom to give children a trade of some kind.
After school we left the same way we entered, one by one, when we would go to a square, about a block from the school, and wait for each other. We would gather laurel leaves and pop them on our hands, on our way home. I remained at her school for two years or more, when I was sent to a Mrs. Mary Beasley, where I continued until May 1860, when she told my grandmother she had taught me all she knew, and grandmother had better get some one else who could teach me more, so I stopped my studies for a while.
I had a white playmate about this time, named Katie O'Connor, who lived on the next corner of the street from my house, and who attended a convent. One day she told me if I would promise not to tell her father. she would give me some lessons, On my promise not to do so. and getting her mother's consent ,she gave me lessons about four months, every evening. At the end of this time she was put into the convent permanently, and I have never seen her since.
A month after this, James Blouis, our landlord's son, was attending the High School, and was very fond of grandmother, so she asked him to give me a few lessons, which he did until the middle of 1861, when the Savannah Volunteer Guards, to which he and his brother belonged, were ordered to the front under General Barton. In the first battle of Manassas, his brother Eugene was killed, and James deserted over to the Union side, and at the close of the war went to Washington, D.C., where he has since resided.
I often wrote passes for my grandmother, for all colored persons, free or slaves, were compelled to have a pass; free colored people having a guardian in place of a master. These passes were good until 10 or 10:30 p.m. for one night or every night for one month. The pass read as follows:
March 1st, 1860
Pass the bearer ___________ from 9 to 10.30 p.m.
Every person had to have this pass, for at nine o'clock each night a bell was rung, and any colored persons found on the street after this hour were arrested by the watchman, and put in the guard house until next morning, when their owners would pay their fines and release them. I knew a number of persons who went out at any time at night and were never arrested, as the watchman knew them so well he never stopped them, and seldom asked to see their passes, only stopping them long enough, sometimes, to say "Howdy," and then telling them to go along.
About this time I had been reading so much about the "Yankees" I was very anxious to see them. The whites would tell their colored people not to go to the Yankees, for they would harness them to carts and make them pull the carts around, in place of horses. I asked grandmother, one day, if this was true. She replied, "Certainly not!" That the white people did not want slaves to go over to the Yankees, and told them these things to frighten them. "Don't you see those signs pasted about the streets? One reading, 'I am a rattlesnake; if you touch me I will strike!' Another reads, 'I am a wild cat! Beware!,' etc. These are warnings to the North, so don't mind what the white people say." I wanted to see these wonderful "Yankees" so much, as I heard my parents say the Yankee was going to set all the slaves free. Oh, how those people prayed for freedom! I remember, one night, my grandmother went out into the suburbs of the city to a church meeting, and they were fervently singing this old hymn:
Yes, we all shall be free
Yes, we all shall be free
Yes, we all shall be free
When the Lord shall appear
when the police came in and arrested all who were there, saying they were planning freedom, and sang "the Lord" in place of "Yankee," to blind any one who might be listening, Grandmother never forgot that night. although she did not stay in the guard-house, as she sent to her guardian, who came at once for her; but this was the last meeting she ever attended out of the city proper.
On April 1, 1862, about the time the Union soldiers were firing on Fort Pulaski, I was sent out into the country to my mother. I remember what a roar and din the guns made. They jarred the earth for miles. The fort was at last taken by them. Two days after the taking of Fort Pulaski, my uncle took his family of seven and myself to St. Catherine Island. We landed under the protection of the Union fleet. and remained there two weeks. when about thirty of us were taken aboard the gunboat P________ to be transferred to St. Simon's Island; and at last to my unbounded joy, I saw the "Yankee."
After we were all settled aboard and started on our journey, Captain Whitmore, commanding the boat, asked me where I was from. I told him Savannah, Ga. He asked if I could read; I said "Yes!" "Can you write?" he next asked. "Yes, I can do that also," I replied, and as if he had some doubts of my answers he handed me a book and a pencil and told me to write my name and where I was from. I did this; when he wanted to know if I could sew. On hearing I could, he asked me to hem some napkins for him. He was surprised at my accomplishments (for they were such in those days), for he said he did not know there were any negroes in the South able to read or write.
Image: Frontispiece from Taylor's autobiography, via Duke University Library, John Hope Franklin Collection