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The celebration for Susie Baker King Taylor’s 169th birthday was also a lesson in African American and local history.
Area residents gathered at Midway First Presbyterian Church last Sunday afternoon for a service and birthday party.
Taylor was a Liberty County-born slave, who escaped and went on to become a nurse during the Civil War, teacher, activist and author. She lived on Grest plantation on Isle of Wight and attended secret, underground schools in Savannah.
The Rev. Dr. Jamil El-Shair, pastor of Midway First Presbyterian, believes Taylor likely had a connection with the 149-year-old church because many slave owners during Taylor’s time were Presbyterians. El-Shair called it a "dark time in church history."
Attendees sang "Lift Every Voice and Sing" and then El-Shair performed an African libation.
"Remember that in this Geechee Gullah corridor there are bones and blood that filled the soil that have stories that are yet untold and cannot be left untold," El-Shair said.
Dr. Jamal Toure, of Geechee Kunda Cultural Center and a Gullah-Geechee scholar, said the coastal region is the "epicenter of African American history and culture in the United States."
"No other place you can go and get all the elements of African American culture in the U.S." Toure said. "And we take pride when it comes to that. When we look in the mirror each morning we see and love ourselves. So when we look at one another, we love you because you are us and we are you."
Toure talked about meeting Michael Thurmond, CEO of Dekalb County, who wrote "Freedom: Georgia’s Antislavery Heritage, 1733-1865." On the cover of the book is an image of Taylor.
"I had a conversation with him about that. He said, ‘Jamal, the person that I felt, when I did my research, to represent who we were in the state of Georgia, regarding our history, our pride, our power, our glory, was Susie King Taylor’" Toure said. "He understood that power and there are people right here in the coastal area not understanding. Susie King Taylor is our hero, our heroine."
Liberty County Commission Chairman Donald Lovette recalled speaking to the Liberty County Historical Society several years ago who, at that time, never heard of Taylor.
"The day will come when Susie Baker King Taylor will be a household name in Liberty County," Lovette said. "Chatham County tried to claim her. Yes that’s where she went to school but her memoirs say that she was born in Liberty County, so she belongs to us."
Until the late 1960s, Liberty County and the surrounding region had the largest percentage of freeholders that were African American in the country, said Rep. Al Williams, D-Midway.
"We owned a lot of land because when Sherman marched from Atlanta, burning everything in his path, he was stopped at the outskirts of Savannah by a group of black deacons, who asked him to spare the city," Williams said "and because of that he presented Savannah as a Christmas gift to President Lincoln."
Williams talked about Sherman’s Special Field Order 15, which set aside land for African American families in plots of 30 to 40 acres and a mule to work the land.
Elder Gloria Williams read a letter from the Savannah Historical Society showing their support for the event and Kashia West sang a song.
Herman Baker was invited to the celebration by a relative and said he was happy that he came. He is the great-grandson of William and Josephine Baker and believes his family has a connection with Taylor. Baker invited writer and historian Hermina Glass-Hill to a family meeting for an upcoming family reunion where he hopes to learn more about his family history.
Glass-Hill has advocated Taylor and said she has been enthralled with her story for 10 years. In February Glass-Hill was the keynote speaker of the First Susie King Taylor Symposium, where she gave talks at schools and in the community.
At the celebration, she talked about Taylor and her accomplishments.
"Susie Baker King Taylor was an extraordinary woman. Her history should be elevated with others in the annals of history. She is a contemporary of Harriet Tubman, she is a contemporary of Sojourner Truth." Glass-Hill said.
Glass-Hill unveiled her new children’s book "Happy Birthday, Susie!" based on Taylor’s childhood in Liberty County, learning to read and write, how she escaped to freedom and more. The book is the first in series entitled "Oh Susannah!"
The book can be ordered online at www.ubuntustrategicconcepts.com.