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Historian inspired by Liberty-born escaped slave turned activist

POSTED: February 8, 2017 5:00 a.m.
Lawrence Dorsey/

Historian Hermina Glass-Hill

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"I am a champion of Susie King Taylor."

Hermina Glass-Hill, a historian and writer, said she can’t stop talking about the Liberty County-born slave who escaped and went on to become a nurse during the Civil War, teacher and later an activist and author of her own autobiography, "Reminiscences of My Life in Camp With the 33rd U.S. Colored Troop, Late First S.C. Volunteers."

Glass-Hill visited the county Monday, and spoke to students at Bradwell Institute, Liberty County High School and residents at the Historic Dorchester Academy about Taylor’s life and contributions.

She told Taylor’s story.

Taylor was born a slave in 1848, on a plantation on Isle of Wight in Midway, which belonged to Valentine Gress.

Her maiden name was Susan Ann Baker.

When Taylor was 7, her grandmother Dolly, who was allowed to work in Savannah, arranged for Taylor to attend a series of secret schools in the city, where she learned to read and write.

Glass-Hill said if an enslaved person was caught learning to read and write they were beaten or dismembered.

"Knowing that she was enslaved, she was willing to risk life and limb so she could get an education," Glass-Hill said.

Taylor moved back to Liberty County with her grandmother at the start of the Civil War. She and her uncle’s family escaped to the Union Army at St. Catherines Island by boat, while Fort Pulaski was under siege. They were picked up by the USS Potomska.

"It was the freest moment she ever felt in her entire life," Glass-Hill said. "It was at that moment that this Liberty County woman from Isle of Wight becomes the first teacher of runaway slaves in the state of Georgia."

On St. Simons Island, Taylor started teaching other runaway slaves who joined the Union Army. She taught children, soldiers and their families.

In 1862, Gen. David Hunter gave the command that escaped slaves could be used as soldiers and the first all-black army regiments were formed.

"Susie King Taylor merges with this formation and she is eventually enlisted in the First South Carolina Volunteers, which later becomes the 33rd Regiment of Colored Troops," Glass-Hill said. "She makes history as the first woman to be employed as a teacher and then she becomes a woman who is entrenched in the first colored regiment of the United States military service."

By age 13 Taylor was a nurse, teacher and laundress. She also met and married Edward King, a noncommissioned officer of the 33rd Regiment.

At the end of the war, Taylor and her husband, returned to civilian life in Savannah. Taylor opened a school for freed children, where tuition was $1 per month, and her husband became a dock worker. King originally wanted to use his carpentry skills to rebuild the South. Her husband died soon after.

Taylor returned to Liberty County to have her son Edward King Jr. She then opened another school on Isle of Wight before moving back to Savannah to find better employment.

Taylor tried to open a third school, but the Freedmen’s Bureau built a school with free tuition, forcing her school to close.

Taylor did domestic work for affluent white families in Savannah and travelled with them north. She decided to make a life for herself in Boston, where she met and married Russell Taylor, a Georgia native.

"In Boston is where she experiences this tremendous sense of freedom," Glass-Hill said. "The sense of leadership, sense of civic duty, education, community, all these things she learned in Liberty County, she takes to the North."

She joined the Women’s Relief Core to aid veterans who were sick. Taylor also became a leader of a Relief Core branch. Glass-Hill believes Taylor’s branch was for black women who were being discriminated against because of Jim Crow Laws.

Taylor then became an activist, speaking against discrimination and social injustice.

In 1892 Congress passed the Army Nurses Pension Act, which gave $12 a month to anyone who served during the Civil War. The law excluded anyone who worked as a cook, laundress or spy. Taylor was denied a pension because her official enrollment was as a laundress not a nurse, and she, like many others at that time, could not prove her service.

In 1902 she wrote a self-published autobiography.

"That book is the best primary resource," Glass-Hill said.

She said she learned about Taylor in 2009 when she was putting together a symposium at Kennesaw State University. She was appointed director of the Center for the Study of the Civil War Era and was looking for different perspectives on that war.

When she read Taylor’s autobiography, Glass-Hill identified with her strong sense of family, community, place and being connected to history.

Glass-Hill is travelling the country as part of a campaign to elevate Taylor to the status of other well-known, historical African-American women, such as Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth.

Glass-Hill is currently writing a book entitled "Justice...Sweet Land of Liberty!" Glass-Hill said her book will offer an inside perspective on Taylor’s life.

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