Thelma is an award-winning non-fiction writer who enjoys writing about people and events in American history.
If you have visited the Savannah, Georgia riverfront, you probably have seen one of the three ferries that operate as part of the water transportation system known as the Savannah Belles. Each of the ferries are named after a woman that is prominent in the town's history, including the Susie King Taylor vessel.
Many people who ride the ferry are curious as to who Mrs. Taylor was and what she did to deserve the honor of having a boat named after her.
Who was Susie King Taylor?
Born in 1848 on a farm in Liberty County, Georgia, Susie Baker grew up to become a well educated woman who served as a teacher, a nurse and established a school. You might say that many other women accomplished similar feats during their lifetimes, so what was so different about Susie?
The answer is, she was a black woman born the daughter of slaves in Georgia, the heart of the south. At that time, the state had harsh laws against African Americans receiving a formal education. It would be a struggle for her to gain the knowledge needed to accomplish her ambitions, especially during the Civil War.
Her Fight for an Education
She and her family were owned by the Grest family, whom her mother worked for as a domestic servant. They lived on a farm outside of Savannah. For some reason that isn't clear today, when she was 7 years old, she and her brother were allowed to live with their grandmother in Savannah.
There, they attended a "secret school" that was operated by black women. Despite the dangers involved, these women risked being imprisoned to teach blacks to read and write.
By the time she was 12 years old, she had learned everything these clandestine teachers were able to teach. She met two white people, a boy and a girl, who offered to teach her even though it violated the law.
At the age of 14, she fled to nearby St. Simons Island which was occupied by the Union. She and many other African Americans claimed their freedom there.
Openly Taught Freed Slaves
When the Union officers at St. Simons Island learned of her education, they gave Susie books and school supplies to establish a school. She became the first black teacher to openly teach freed African American slaves in the state of Georgia. She taught children during the day and adults at night.
Quote from her memoirs in reference to the number of students she taught: "a number of adults who came to me nights, all of them so eager to learn to read, to read above anything else."
— Susie King Taylor
Recognized by National Nurses United
First Black Army Nurse
While teaching at St. Simons Island, she met and married Edward King, a black Union Army soldier. She accompanied her husband's unit in their travels and taught the soldiers how to read and write. She also worked as a nurse, caring for injured black soldiers and became the first black Army nurse serving in the Civil War.
In 1866, she and her husband returned home to Savannah, where he passed away shortly thereafter. That same year, she founded a school for freed black children.
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She moved to Boston in the early 1870's where she married her second husband, Russell Taylor, and became president of the Women's Relief Corps, a group that gave assistance to soldiers.
Memoirs of Her Life
In 1902, the little girl that struggled for the opportunity to learn to read and write, published her memoirs in book form as Reminiscences of My Life in Camp with the 33rd US Colored Troops. She was the only African American woman to publish her experiences of the Civil War.
She passed away in Boston in 1912 at the age of 64.
Compared to Clara Barton
Susie King Taylor is recognized today as a nurse, whom some have called a "black Clara Barton". She was a social activist who rallied African American women, including Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, to aid black soldiers and contribute to the Civil War efforts. She dedicated her life to the advancement of African Americans by giving them knowledge which hopefully would give them a brighter future.
Sadly, this remarkable freed slave is buried in an unmarked grave in Mount Hope Cemetery in Roslindale, Massachusetts. Perhaps someday she will be recognized with at least a proper grave stone.
Quote from her memoirs referencing her belief that better conditions would prevail for African Americans:
“We hope for better conditions in the future and feel sure they will come in time, surely if slowly.”
— Susie King Taylor
© 2017 Thelma Raker Coffone
FlourishAnyway from USA on February 23, 2017:
I had not heard of this inspiring woman and am glad to have learned of who she was now. Very appropriate for National Black History Month.
Nancy Yager from Hamburg, New York on February 23, 2017:
I was not aware of Susie King Taylors life story and all of her accomplishments. I can only imagine how many lives were changed by her.
Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on February 23, 2017:
I'm an old history buff and I love articles like this one. Thanks for the education.
Ronald E Franklin from Mechanicsburg, PA on February 22, 2017:
I know something of Susie King Taylor's story and I'm glad to see it getting wider exposure. She worked hard to better the lives of African Americans in a very difficult time, and her example provides inspiration and encouragement that's still very much needed today.