Susie King Taylor

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Unknown photographer, Susie King Taylor, halftone frontispiece from Reminiscences of My Life in Camp (1902), 5 1/2 × 3 1/8 in. (13.8 × 8 cm). Chris Foard

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Susie King Taylor (1848–1912) served the Union army as a nurse, educator, laundress, occasional cook, and scout for food supplies. She was born “Susie Baker,” the daughter of slaves, on the Isle of Wight off the coast of Georgia. At age seven she was sent to live with her grandmother in Savannah, where, despite the laws against educating slaves, she was secretly taught to read and write. In April 1862 she returned to the coastal islands, taking refuge behind Union lines along with her uncle and his family. When Union forces discovered Taylor could read and write, they asked her to run a school for children and adults on nearby St. Simons Island, Georgia. While there, she met and married her first husband, Sergeant Edward King of the South Carolina Volunteers (later the 33rd U.S. Colored Infantry). For the next three years Taylor traveled with him and his regiment, working as a laundress and nurse. In July 1863 she worked alongside Clara Barton caring for the wounded soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts after their disastrous attempt to take Fort Wagner.

After the war ended, Taylor continued to teach freed black children in different southern communities but struggled to keep the schools financially solvent. When her husband died, she was forced to leave their child with her mother and take work as a laundress and cook for various wealthy families. By 1874 she was living in Boston, where she met and married her second husband, Russell L. Taylor, also a Georgia native. Her later years were spent in Boston working with the Woman’s Relief Corps, helping struggling Civil War veterans, and writing her wartime memoirs, Reminiscences of My Life in Camp with the 33rd United States Colored Troops, late 1st South Carolina Volunteers (1902).

Taylor’s book recalls her formative years in Savannah, her work as an educator, and the life-changing years with the Union troops. She ends the narrative by reflecting on the state of race relations and hostilities she experienced upon returning to the South at the turn of the twentieth century, in 1898. Traveling by train to Shreveport, Louisiana, to bring her ailing son back to Boston, she had no choice but to ride in “a car for colored people,” was harassed by civic bureaucrats, and her son denied comfortable accommodations on the train. “It seemed very hard, when his father fought to protect the Union and our flag, and yet his boy, under this same flag, was denied a berth, to carry him home to die, because he was a negro,” she recalled in her memoir.

She asks herself, “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?” Acknowledging the continued racism and inequality between blacks and whites, she closed her narrative with a demand tinged with hope: “My people are striving to attain the full standard of all other races born free in the sight of God, and in a number of instances have succeeded. Justice we ask—to be citizens of these United States, where so many of our people have shed their blood with their white comrades, that the stars and stripes should never be polluted.”