June 21, 2021

Susie King Taylor


Susie King Taylor was born into slavery in Georgia in 1848. With the help of family members, she was educated and escaped, joining the Union army at the age of 14, to serve ostensibly as a laundress, but in reality as a nurse, teacher, and even musket preparer. In 1902, Taylor published Reminiscences of My Life in Camp with the 33d United States Colored Troops, an autobiography that covers not just her experiences during the Civil War, but also her childhood and her later years. Taylor includes in the work her powerful analysis of race relations at the beginning of 20th Century.

Kelly briefly tells Taylor’s remarkable story and interviews Ben Railton, Professor of American literature and American Studies at Fitchburg State University, and author of Of Thee I Sing: The Contested History of American Patriotism.

Our theme song is Frogs Legs Rag, composed by James Scott and performed by Kevin MacLeod, licensed under Creative Commons. Episode image: Susie King Taylor,  Published by the subject, 1902 [from a photograph taken earlier]. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA. Public Domain.

Transcript available at: https://www.unsunghistorypodcast.com/transcripts/transcript-episode-3.

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Transcript

Kelly:

This is Unsung History. The podcast where we tell the stories of people and events in American history that haven't gotten much notice. I'm your host, Kelly Therese Pollock. I'll start each episode with a brief introduction to the topic, and then interview someone who knows a lot more than I do. Today's story is about civil war nurse, Susie King Taylor. Susie M. Baker was born on August 6th, 1848 in antebellum Georgia. She was born into slavery on a plantation where her mother was an enslaved domestic servant. But when she was seven years old, her grandmother was given permission to take her along with her younger brother and sister to live in Savannah. Although it was illegal in Georgia at the time for African Americans to be educated, Susie's grandmother arranged for her to attend secret schools. In Susie's remarkable autobiography, she writes, "we went everyday 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 kitchen, which was the school room. She had 25 or 30 children whom she taught assisted by her daughter, Mary Jane. The neighbors would see us going in sometimes, but they suppose we were learning trades, as it was the custom to give children a trade of some kind." The schooling would be instrumental in the course of Susie's life. By April of 1862, Susie was sent back to the plantation with her mother, but very shortly thereafter, her uncle took advantage of the confusion during the Battle of Fort Pulaski to fleet with his family of seven and with Susie. They lived under the protection of the Union Army on St. Simons Island, and at the urging of Commodore Goldsboro, Susie, not yet 14 years old, set up a school for the 40 children there. Plus the adults who came to her to learn to read. Write around her 14th birthday, Susie joined the 33rd United States colored Infantry Regiment under Captain CT Trowbridge, where she was originally a laundress. But her role quickly expanded to that of nurse and teacher to Company E and she eventually married one of the soldiers, Edward King. Of nursing in wartime Susie wrote, "it seems strange horror aversion to seeing sufferings overcome and war. How we are able to see the most sickening sites such as men with their limbs blown off and mangled by the deadly shells without a shutter, and instead of turning away, how we hurry to assist in alleviating their pain, bind up their wounds and press the cool water to their parched lips, with feelings only have sympathy and pity." At one point late in 1864, Suzy was separated from the company for a short period, and she took a passenger yacht from Hilton Head to Beaufort, South Carolina to meet up with them. Her boat capsized, and she had to cling to the sail to keep from drowning. By the time she and one of the other women were rescued, had nearly died of exposure. After the war, Suzanne Edward left the 33rd regiment and returned to Savannah. They received no pension from the army. Suzy opened a school for African American children and an adult night school on South Broad Street, and Edward tried to find a job in his trade as a carpenter. But despite his skill, prejudice made the job search difficult. He found work as a longshoreman, but died in a docking accident just months before their child was born. As free schools for African Americans opened, Suzy can no longer make enough money to run her school, and she took a job as a domestic servant to a white family. In 1870, Susie traveled with the family to Boston, where she met her second husband, Russell L. Taylor, whom she married in 1879. Throughout her life, Susie remained loyal to the army veterans writing, "my hands have never left undone anything they could do towards their aid and comfort in the twilight of their years." In 1886, she helped to organize the Women's Relief Corps, and auxilary to the Grand Army of the Republic, and she served many roles in the organization. Susie King Taylor closes out her autobiography by talking about the state of race relations in the US at the beginning of the 20th century. Just as she was writing the book, which was published in 1902. She compares the relatively good conditions she experiences in Boston with the horrors she witnesses while traveling back south to Louisiana to visit her ill son, she writes, "living here in Boston, where the black man is given equal justice, I must say a word on the general treatment of my race, both in the north and south in this 20th century. I wonder if our fellow white 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, as 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?" Although Susie King Taylor is not as well known nationally as figures like Harriet Tubman, she has recently received some recognition in Georgia. In 2015, a school was opened in Savannah in her name, the Susie King Taylor community school. In 2018, she was elected to the Georgia Women of Achievement Hall of Fame for her contributions to education, freedom and humanity during her lifetime. And in 2019, the Georgia Historical Society constructed a historic marker to commemorate Taylor's life and career in education, literature and medicine. Susie King Taylor died on October 6th, 1912, at age 64, and she is buried in Massachusetts. You can read Susie's autobiography online and I'll link to it in the show notes. To understand more about Susie story in context, I'm speaking with Ben Railton, Professor of American literature and American Studies at Fitchburg State University in Massachusetts. Ben is the author of several books, including the recently published, Of Thee I Sing, the Contested History of American Patriotism. Hi, Ben.

Ben Railton:

Hi, Kelly. So glad to be chatting with you.

Kelly:

Yes. So it is great to talk to you. And I have to say until you mentioned that we could do an episode on Susie King Taylor I had terribly and shockingly never heard of her. So I think that's where I want to start is, you know, how did you first learn about Susie King Taylor? And you know, what drew you to her story?

Ben Railton:

So I think I first saw her referenced or learned about her through Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the colonel of a US Colored Troops regiment during the Civil War. And it was the regiment that she ended up working with as a nurse and educator and in other roles as well. I'm a big fan of Higginson, as I had been thinking about him for a long time, particularly his role as a colonel of one of the first US Colored Troops regiments, and the first from the south, I believe, drawn from the south specifically. And he wrote about that experience in a book of his own. And briefly, at least in that project, as I remember, it mentioned, Susie King at the time, was her name, and maybe even Baker, her birth name, but in any case, mentioned her briefly. And so I had kind of always had her in the periphery of my of my sense of the Civil War, and the US Colored Troops regiments, and a lot of related histories. But then it really wasn't until this most recent book, when I was thinking about the idea of active patriotism during the Civil War. And I was thinking about both US Colored Troops soldiers and about nurses. And Taylor really connects to both of those communities. So that was, it was only a couple years ago that I really started learning more about her than just that brief reference. So I think she's unfortunately not yet on too many radars at all. And that was certainly true for me till pretty recently as well.

Kelly:

Yeah. And so she has this wonderful memoir, that really, you know, talks a lot about her time in the war, but also has a lot of interesting reflections on race and American culture. You know, so do we have any sense of why this isn't better known? And I mean, she published it, it's not like this is hidden.

Ben Railton:

Yeah, I mean, to be honest, the simplest way I can put it is that for a long time, I think our story of the Civil War and of all related histories, was focused on white soldiers on both sides. And so even I mean, the US Colored Troops, I think, up until at least Glory in 1989. That was also a story that was very, very poorly remembered or known. And that's 200,000 soldiers. That's this huge percentage of, you know, the Union Army. So I think that's the main thing was just that for so long, the story of the Civil War was a story of, you know, brother against brother white soldiers on both sides, all the related histories around that. And then the other thing I would say, that I think is in play is the post Civil War period, which is when Taylor's, you know, law and activism continues and when she publishes the book in 1902, become so dominated by the lost cause narrative and so dominated not just by the the white civil war, but specifically by these very particular visions of the south and slavery. And you know, the lost clause story. And Taylor doesn't fit in any of that. She's the opposite of that. She's this continued reminder of both the realities of slavery and of African American patriotism, and heroism and activism. So I think in that period, she certainly became forgotten because of that national narrative. And then unfortunately, that sort of dominated the way we remembered our path for, you know, the next 100 years. So I think it really is a lot of just a narrative that we've told for so long. And, and yeah, the texts are there, the figures are there that a reminiscences or book is, you know, it's online now, and it's been available for a long time, but it just wasn't in our collective memories for so long.

Kelly:

One of the things I kept doing as I was reading her memoir, is doing math in my head and thinking about just how very young she was, during the Civil War, as she was acting as you know, laundress, nurse, you know, however, we want to describe what she was doing. And she was only like, 14, this is, it's kind of shocking to think she's the, you know, the same age, then that, that Anne Frank was when she was writing her diary, for instance, you know, and to draw these parallels. Can you give us some sense of what kind of life in the Civil War looked like, you know, what, what this reality is for, you know, not just for her, but you know, for soldiers at the time, you know, how we can sort of better think about this, this time and place.

Ben Railton:

Sure, and I think she's particularly kind of telling for that, because she spans two different sides that are almost, you know, contradictory, but they both are true. One is the very kind of, you know, accurately I guess, stereotypical narratives of, you know, the the slave south and then of enslaved people beginning to escape that situation, which, of course, was happening long before the Civil War, but but ramps up even more during the Civil War, when it becomes more and more possible for enslaved people to escape from slavery as the Union Army is moving through the South that has bad. And so that's one part of her story is that she is, you know, an enslaved young woman or girl in Georgia, who begins to find a way to escape that reality and move into a new one. And I think that's a somewhat broadly familiar narrative during the Civil War. But the other thing that's happening is just all these incredible sort of experimental communities are forming because of all these changes that are happening so rapidly. So like, she ends up on St. Simons Island, this island off the coast of Georgia, which has one of the first that I know of anyway, one of the first school systems, sort of educational systems for young African Americans, including many who are leaving slavery who were fleeing slavery. And so she, as I understand, it works even as an educator at like 14/15 years old, in that St. Simons system, which is run in part by the Union Army and in part by these escaped enslaved people. So she's both sort of living that kind of broad reality of, you know, the beginning of the end of slavery and of enslaved people finding ways to, to leave that horrible system during the war, but she's also kind of reminds us that there's so much that's happening during the war that is kind of like pre reconstruction, these experimental communities educationally around the US Colored Troops regiments, and so many other forms. And she really kind of not just becomes part of that, but helps lead it helps contribute to the creation of those communities. And so I think both those things are really important parts of the story that she helps remember what the war meant for enslaved people rather than again, just, let's say for soldiers, as important as they were. But then also just the creation of these communities that were not like anything that really had been seen before, because of what's opening up in that time. And in these spaces, and St. Simons Island is an example. And then it's not even always clear to me how she finds her way. But she finds her way from there to this regiment to Higginson's regiment in South Carolina, eventually, in Beaufort, and that's where she begins her work also as a nurse and learns to fire a musket, as she writes about So, so potently. And so that's another kind of experimental community that she becomes attached to as well.

Kelly:

So one of the reasons she is able to work as a nurse is because she is vaccinated against smallpox, which, again, this is not really a thing that I had realized that she would have been, you know, at that time, but it seems like smallpox continued to be a really big problem for the formerly enslaved people, you know, during and after the Civil War. You know, what, what does that look like? You know, we think about sort of war and pandemic as being separate. But, you know, for an epidemic [they] often actually go together, so what does that look like and what does it mean? Would it have been rare for her to have been vaccinated, is this I guess just sort of if we could spell out what, maybe a little bit about what that looks like, and what nursing maybe even looked like, you know, what sorts of things would she have been doing? Because it's not the same as what it would look like today.

Ben Railton:

It's not and I think in particular, you know, so much of our narrative of nurses during the Civil War is battlefield nursing, in large part because of your prominent people like Walt Whitman, and briefly, Louisa May Alcott, who both have experience with that to some degree and write about that in various forms. You know, nursing wounded soldiers, etc. And that's obviously a huge thing that happens as in any war, but certainly during the Civil War, but yeah, pandemic nursing and you know, illness nursing. I mean, the majority of the Union casualties as I understand it died in one way or another from disease, right, more than then battle is as horrific as battles were. And that's not just kind of battlefield disease or the aftermath of injuries. Pandemic is a great example of it, and the historian Jim Downes has recently written about this really powerfully, and actually, you just had a piece in The Atlantic, this past week about smallpox during the Civil War, right in the aftermath of the Civil War, and specifically, the effects on formerly enslaved people who were often at the most risk for all the various reasons that you can be at risk. So no, I think vaccination was unfortunately, pretty rare, especially for that community. But it was something that was in Taylor's story, or King at the time, her story, as you noted, and because of that, it really allowed her to move into that next role, that nursing wasn't just, you know, like a random calling it was a very particular role that she could perform both because of her interest and her educational background and part but also because she had been able to be vaccinated at a young age, which I do think was pretty rare. And so then she ends up working with somebody like Clara Barton, who's down there in South Carolina. And again, that's not just the sort of the Red Cross battlefield nursing narrative that we're familiar with. It's also that pandemic response that was devastating and continued to devastate, I think South Carolina was the hardest hit. Downs has written about that at some length. And so she's really at the epicenter of that pandemic. And she's working in response to that, as well as attached to a regiment and a battlefield nurse. And so it's this multi pronged approach. And I think just to say, then, her work after the war, where she becomes this activist on behalf of nursing veterans, on veterans of the nursing Corps, I would argue, is really, because she's seeing those multiple layers of the work that they did and continued to do. It didn't end when the war ended, the pandemic in South Carolina continued to be really brutal for years after, as downs and others have traced. And so I think that really is what led her to that lifelong activism on behalf because she saw that continued role that the nursing community played, not just in the war, but in response to smallpox, for sure.

Kelly:

And then the war ends, and she makes her way up north, to Massachusetts, but she writes toward the end of her memoir about going back south to see her son as he's dying. And it's so striking, you know, I, I think of this system, of course, a racist country. And so, you know, in my, in my thoughts about sort of what it would look like, historically is, oh, the North probably wasn't that much better than the South in terms of race, you know, after the Civil War. But clearly, given her experiences, you know, that there is still this sort of really shocking situation in the south after the Civil War, the way that, that Black people are treated. What was that like in the sort of Reconstruction, Post-Reconstruction Era? And, you know, what can that sort of do to sort of inform us about about today, and, you know, sort of what the South continues to look like in terms of politics and education and things like that?

Ben Railton:

Absolutely. And I think it's important to say that, that Taylor as she was then eventually known when she married her second husband, that her experience of Boston is a kind of ideal version, in a lot of ways. Boston did certainly still have a lot of segregation, a lot of, of that late 19th century racism that continued throughout the 20th. And she gets attached to a lot of really progressive activist communities, who are often former abolitionists, and in other ways that she contributes to, that more ideal side. But yeah, Louisiana in particular, which is where she especially ends up back when she's visiting her son, as you noted, was the first of the post Confederate States to have the Black Codes, I believe, are at least one of the first sets right after the, you know, literally like within months of the Civil War, they begin to pass those brutal new sets of laws. And sothen there's the, you know, the constitutional convention that is the site of a massacre in 1866 against, you know, African American participants. Louisiana sort of spearheads that immediate resurgence of white supremacy, of Neo-Confederate white supremacy, in laws in massacres in other ways, and And that, of course, becomes the story of the whole post Civil War South. And I've argued, and a lot of others have as well, the whole nation to some degree by 1900 is the resurgence of that white supremacy and that Neo Confederate narrative driven by these Southern laws and histories, but becoming nationwide. And I think what that especially helps us think about is two things. I'll start with the more negative one, which is just that that story that you know, it's so easy again, if you think about the civil wars, the story of brother against brother, for example, the post Civil War story is whatever union and I think, to some degree, that still is a large part of our national narrative, rather than have the resurgence of one of those forces so powerfully. And King Taylor experiences that when she travels to Louisiana, and sees fully how much things have perhaps regressed certainly not progressed in the way she might have hoped, by the late 1800s. And that's one important story. But then the other story, again, is the story of the persistence and activism and, and just powerful, critical patriotism of people like Susie King Taylor in the face of that, right that it's not just that she's doing work in an ideal setting, which at times, perhaps she was in that part of Boston, but also in the face of those national trends. That her activism between 1865 and her death in the early 20th century, is not just a continuation, it's even more sort of in the face of these national narratives of kind of resurgent white supremacy. And so I think it helps us think about the true heroes of that late 19th and early 20th century moment, who are people like her doing that work in the face of those national narratives. There's a nation magazine article right after reconstruction ends in 1877 that says, pretty supportively makes the point that the Negro will now disappear from national politics. That's what the nation argued in 1877. And again, they're not perhaps entirely endorsing that they're observing it, but they're also not critical of the idea, I don't think. But that didn't happen. And the reason it didn't happen, there are lots of reasons but one of them is the continued activism of people like Susie King Taylor refusing to disappear, refusing to leave the communities and the conversations in the face of those and better remembering what happens overall in America allows us to also maybe better remember people like her and the work that they did.

Kelly:

So that's a good transition into talking about the the theme of your book, Of Thee I Sing. So can you talk to us a little bit about what the sort of the broader structure of that book is? And what you're looking at here, when you're thinking about sort of what is patriotism? And, you know, how do we think about it?

Ben Railton:

Sure. Thank you for asking. And I would say, I think just to use a really like June 2021 starting point, it's been so telling to me to see how consistently right now in our debates, the idea of teaching history, or teaching patriotism, or teaching, let's say slavery, teaching race and slavery and teaching patriotism, are often opposed as if those are two different things that you can do. And the reason I would argue for that is that still to this day, even those who would maybe disagree with that use patriotism in one particular way to mean one particular thing, which is the form in this book that I call "mythic patriotism," the sort of creation of very particular national myths, and the idea that anyone who opposes or disagrees with those is not patriotic, in one way or another. That's one form of patriotism. But the argument in this book is my argument in his book is that there are there other possibilities, there have always been in every moment of American history, different ways to think about and define and embody what patriotism means. And if we better remember the legacy of those alternatives, then we can see different possible ways to teach and live and share the idea of patriotism in the 21st century and 2021. And so with that broad structure in mind that I'm really trying to trace these different possibilities across historical moments. So what did mythic patriotism look like during the Civil War? But what did "active patriotism" my third category, or "critical patriotism," my fourth, what did they look like? What were examples of that? And I think somebody like King Taylor really embodies both of those last couple, she's an active patriot, serving and sacrificing on behalf of pushing the nation toward a more ideal version of its future. But she's doing that, at least in part by criticizing the realities of the present both enslavement, for sure, but also some of the continued reality, some of the continued gaps between those ideals and where America was, and then arguing for that better version. The end of her book is this really powerful reflection on the battle she is still in to push for that better version, that more ideal version, and just to quickly quote it because it's a moment that is worth quoting. At the very, very end of her book, she, she argues, "...despite all the hindrances and 'race problems,' my people are striving to attain the full standard of all other races born free, and in a number of instances have succeeded. Justice we 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." And so that, to me really embodies both active and critical patriotism. Critical because she's highlighting those gaps, those failures, those flaws, but active by celebrating the service and sacrifice of her community and by arguing for that continued work, that continued battle to move the nation forward. And, and again, those are examples of patriotism, that we have that every one of our histories, so to remember, for example, slavery and race, and a figure who comes, who is part of all those histories like Taylor, is not to be unpatriotic. It's to highlight alternatives to just one form or one mythic version and think about what we can learn from them as we go forward.

Kelly:

So would you argue that teaching critical race theory is not anti patriotic?

Ben Railton:

I would, I absolutely would. And, and I obviously, so much of the narrative around CRT right now has nothing to do with any realities. But it is worth noting, within critical race theory, my understanding is that there are two main precepts. The first is the idea that that in the United States law and sort of institutions, have you ever been driven by racism a lot of the time, but the second is the idea that there is an alternative, that the alternative is to use those same mechanisms to push for equality and justice. And in fact that there are models for that throughout our history, as well as models of the racial structures and supremacy. And so even even when maybe we slightly talk about any reality to do with CRT, I think it's just that first precept, and it's not recognizing that it also includes within it, again, a model for something like critical patriotism, for recognizing the gaps and pushing to overcome them through things like law and activism. And that's, you know, the same kind of work that that somebody like Taylor was fighting the same battle she was fighting for. So yeah, it can absolutely be a model, not just for better understanding our history, but for being a critical patriot trying to move the nation forward toward a more equitable, just more perfect union as well.

Kelly:

So before we tell people how to get your book, is there anything else that you would like to make sure we talk about,

Ben Railton:

I just would reiterate where you started as well, which is that when it comes to somebody like Susie King Taylor, she's out there and and her memoir is out there, everybody should read it. It's short, it's very readable.

Kelly:

It's free.

Ben Railton:

Free, yep. It's through the UNC website, among other places, that it's digitized through their great work. And I think that's really, one of the things that gives me hope about moving America forward is that there are so many of these stories and these figures and texts and voices and histories, and we have access to them now, more than ever, through digitizing and online resources and the work that scholars are doing. And we all can benefit from that. And there's no, there's no argument to me, there's no divisive side, to doing that, to learning about somebody like this, it isn't just about one partisan perspective, or one side, this is an American story that can inspire all of us, and should inspire all of us. And it's out there for us to find and better connected.

Kelly:

Absolutely. So tell listeners, how they can get both your books and your other public scholarship.

Ben Railton:

Sure, the sort of clearinghouse for all of that, I guess is is my daily blog, my American Studies blog, where I have links to books and other projects. That's americanstudier.blogspot.com is the address for that. And my last few books are all through Roman and Littlefield. So their website is a great place to go for Of Thee I Sing and the prior couple before that as well. But again, all of those are linked on that American Studier site and I'd love people to check in through there. My email address is there. There's lots of ways to talk and share your thoughts and and keep this conversation going through through those different means.

Kelly:

Great, and we'll put links up on our show notes as well. And on the unsunghistorypodcast.com website. I'll put all sorts of sources to learn more about Susie King Taylor. Well, Ben, thank you. This has been a great. I come out of these conversations with a lot of hope, I spend a lot of time on politics, Twitter for my other podcast. And that tends to be a sort of gloomy place a lot of the time and I find that academic Twitter can bring hopes. I really like the hope of these conversations.

Ben Railton:

I agree. And and again, I think if there is going to be genuine hope it's about learning these histories and sharing them rather than, you know, pretending that we can whitewash them. It's through the collective learning and conversation that I find the most hope for sure.

Teddy:

Thanks for listening to Unsung History. You can find the sources used for this episode at unsunghistorypodcast.com. To the best of our knowledge, all audio and images used by Unsung History are in the public domain or are used with permission. You can find us on Twitter, or Instagram, @Unsung__History. Or on Facebook, @UnsungHistoryPodcast. To contact us with questions or episode suggestions, please email, kelly@unsunghistorypodcast.com. If you enjoyed this podcast, please rate and review and tell your friends.

Ben Railton

https://twitter.com/AmericanStudier

I’m interested in all things America: our literature and culture, our histories and stories, our national narratives and myths, our identity and future. I try to teach and think and write about those topics in every way I can, and to share them with my two most important American projects, my teenage sons.