Life Story: Susie Baker King TaylorLee Boomer2021-02-11T12:02:56-05:00
Life Story: Susie Baker King Taylor (1848–1912)
Black Union Army Worker and Reconstruction Era Teacher
The life story of a woman who served with the 33rd U.S. Colored Infantry and struggled to find her place in the Reconstruction era.
Susie King Taylor, “Frontispiece,” Reminiscences of My Life in Camp: With the 33d United States Colored Troops Late 1st S. C. Volunteers (Boston: Published by the Author, 1902). New-York Historical Society Library.
Susie King Taylor, “My School House in Savannah,” Reminiscences of My Life in Camp: With the 33d United States Colored Troops Late 1st S. C. Volunteers (Boston: Published by the Author, 1902). New-York Historical Society Library.
Susie Baker was born on a plantation in Liberty County, Georgia, on August 6, 1848. Her mother, Hagar Ann Baker, was enslaved by the Grest family. Susie inherited the status of her mother and began her life as an enslaved person.
When Susie was seven years old, her enslavers allowed her and two of her siblings to move to Savannah, Georgia, to live with their free grandmother. It was illegal to teach enslaved people to read and write, but Susie’s grandmother knew that education was important. So she sent Susie to a secret school for Black children. To make sure the school remained a secret, Susie and her classmates never arrived or left at the same time. If the school was discovered, they would all have been severely punished.
Susie was a quick learner and soon mastered everything the school could teach her. A white playmate then offered to secretly tutor her. When that girl went to boarding school, Susie studied with her landlord’s white son. Susie used what she learned to help her grandmother and other free Black people in her neighborhood resist the oppressive laws they lived under. For example, she wrote passes for her Black family and friends, so they could travel at night without being arrested by the city watchmen.
In April 1862, when Union troops came close to Savannah, Susie’s grandmother was arrested for suspected abolitionist activities. Susie moved back to the Grest family plantation. Soon after her return, Susie’s uncle helped her escape to the Union Army line. She became one of thousands of escaped enslaved people who were considered contraband by the Union Army and was sent to a contraband camp on St. Simon’s Island. Within a few days of her arrival, Union officers learned that she was educated. They offered to buy her books and materials if she would start a school for the children of the camp. Susie eagerly agreed, and at the age of 14, founded the first school for free Black children run by a Black woman. By day, she taught children, and at night, she taught their parents.
Confederate soldiers frequently raided the camp at St. Simon’s, captured people, and returned them to their enslavers. In response, the men of the camp formed a militia to fight off these attacks. Their bravery caught the attention of the Union Army. In August 1862, Captain C.T. Trowbridge arrived to recruit men to join a Black regiment he was forming. This regiment would come to be known as the 33rd United States Colored Infantry. Susie married Edward King, a Black officer in the infantry, and joined the regiment as a laundry worker. Because the regiment was not officially recognized by the U.S. government, the soldiers did not get paid for the first eighteen months of their service.
For the next four years, Susie traveled and worked with the 33rd U.S. Colored Infantry. She experienced firsthand the hardships that Black Union troops endured throughout the war. Though she was officially a laundry worker, Susie did a variety of jobs for the regiment. She served as a nurse, cleaned and tested weapons, made meals for officers, and taught any interested soldier how to read and write. When President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, the troops Susie served finally got the full salaries and back pay due to them. However, the U.S. government never paid Susie for her work nor awarded her a pension.
Susie was one of the founding members of Corps 67 of the Women’s Relief Corps. This group raised money to support Black Civil War veterans.
Susie and Edward remained with the 33rd U.S. Colored Infantry until February 9, 1866. They then moved back to Savannah, where Susie opened a school for Black children. She charged $1 a month tuition per student. Because of strong prejudices against newly freed Black people in Savannah, Edward struggled to find work in his trade. To make a living, he was forced to work as a day laborer, loading and unloading ships at the port. On September 6, 1866, he was killed in a work accident, leaving a pregnant Susie to survive on her own in the Reconstruction South.
Shortly after giving birth to her son, Susie had to close her school. Black philanthropists had opened a free public school for Black children, and all of Susie’s pupils enrolled there. She moved back to Liberty County and tried opening a school there, but the poor treatment of Black Americans she witnessed there sent her back to Savannah. She tried opening an evening school for adult learners, but, once again, she lost her pupils when a free school opened. Eventually, Susie had to take work as a domestic servant.
In 1874, Susie moved to Boston with one of her employers. She was amazed at the relative equality Black people enjoyed in the city. Susie decided to stay there for the rest of her life. She married Russell L. Taylor in 1879 and soon after left her job as a domestic servant.
Susie was one of the founding members of Corps 67 of the Women’s Relief Corps. This group raised money to support Black Civil War veterans. Over the next four decades, Susie served as guard, secretary, treasurer, and president of Corps 67, staying active in both Boston and Savannah.
In 1898, just two years after the Supreme Court decision Plessy v. Ferguson made segregation legal in the United States, Susie came face-to-face with the systemic racism of the post-Reconstruction era. Her son, who had moved to Louisiana, fell seriously ill and Susie traveled there from Boston to bring him home. Because of their race, the train company refused to sell Susie a ticket for a bed on a sleeper train for her son, which was the only way he could safely travel in his condition. Instead, Susie stayed in Louisiana to care for her son. She faced scornful and violent behavior by white Southerners. Her experiences left her wondering whether the Civil War had really accomplished anything for Black people. Susie’s son eventually died, and she returned to Boston, where she lived until the end of her life in 1912.
In 1902, Susie published her memoir, Reminiscences of My Life in Camp: With the 33d United States Colored Troops Late 1st S. C. Volunteers. It is the only firsthand account of the lives and experiences of Black Civil War soldiers written by a Black woman. At the end of her book, Susie asked her white readers to do more to help Black Americans:
What a wonderful revolution! In 1861 the Southern papers were full of advertisements for “slaves,” but now, despite all the hindrances and “race problems,” 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.
abolitionist: A person or group that wanted to end the practice of slavery.
Confederate: Relating to the group of states that seceded from the United States before the Civil War in order to preserve slavery.
contraband: The name the Union Army gave to all enslaved people who were freed or escaped to Union lines during the American Civil War.
domestic servant: A person who works to maintain the home of their employer.
Emancipation Proclamation: Issued by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation freed all enslaved people held by Confederate supporters and allowed Black men to enter the armed forces for the first time.
militia: A volunteer army.
Plessy v. Ferguson: A landmark Supreme Court decision issued in 1896 that declared racial segregation laws constitutional in the United States.
Reconstruction: The years between 1865 and 1877 when the federal government actively sought to reincorporate the former Confederacy back into the United States and integrate Black Americans into the nation’s economics, politics, and society.
regiment: A unit of the army.
salary: A fixed sum of money paid to a person in exchange for work.
Union: The name for the states that remained a part of the United States during the Civil War.
Why did Susie’s early education have to be secret? How did she use her knowledge to help her community?
Susie was never paid for the work she did for the Union Army. What does this reveal about Union Army attitudes towards Black women?
What setbacks did Susie face after the end of the war? What does her journey reveal about the experience of Black women in the Reconstruction era?
Susie Baker King Taylor’s full memoir, Reminiscences of My Life in Camp: With the 33d United States Colored Troops Late 1st S. C. Volunteers, is available online. Invite students to read passages from Susie’s book and consider how reading a biography about her life differs from reading her own words.
In chapter 13 of her memoir, “Thoughts on Present Conditions,” Susie Baker King Taylor offers a succinct and powerful analysis of the treatment of Black Americans in the Reconstruction era. Invite students to read this chapter, and then write their own “Thoughts on Present Conditions,” detailing their impressions of race relations in the present-day United States.