Friday, June 18, 2021

Susie King Taylor

I've been going back and forth in my mind about whether to post something related to Juneteenth, because the current topic is a complex story: is the addition of an official holiday being used to front for lack of real change on voting rights? At the same time, officially celebrating the final end of enslavement after the Civil War is worth doing. But as a blog topic, maybe it wasn't mine to write about this year.

But then I saw this photograph, which is not directly related, but certainly is in harmony:

It was shared through the Twitter account of historian and sociologist Christina Proenz Coles. Among other things, she's the author of a book called American Founders: How People of African Descent Established Freedom in the New World.

The image was made in the 1880s by Samuel Willard Bridgham, and the woman portrayed is named Susie King Taylor, who was a nurse and camp aide for the Union Army during the Civil War.

Proenza Coles reports that "Mrs. Taylor is wearing a military bodice in the portrait... the glass negative was recently encountered by daguerreotype collector Stephen Restelli." The page about the daguerrotype collector who found the glass negative has more details.

Another commenter on Twitter replied that they have a copy of a book written by Mrs. Taylor, and shared the cover. That book is what helped the collector figure out who Mrs. Taylor was.

Susie King Taylor lived until 1912, and was born in 1848, which means she was only 14 when she began working with the Union Army in 1862, and married a soldier not long afterward. She was only in her 40s when the photograph was taken.

The Goodreads reviews are helpful in giving an idea of what her memoir is like. One review in particular included details on the book's final chapters and says her description of "lingering post-war racial inequalities are pure fire."

That reviewer also gave a link to a pdf of the original (1902) version of the book. I gather the newly edited and printed version incorporates footnotes that make it more accessible for a modern reader, in the sense of a concordance, though of course footnotes tend to make some readers feel overwhelmed in a different way.

But I was happy to look at the original right now online, so I did.

Reading the opening pages, I note that SKT's mother was 13 years old when she married and 14 when SKT was born, so the fact that SKT also married at a similar (even somewhat older) age is not surprising except to my modern eyes.

Another fact I learned from her book is that the Black soldiers who were recruited to the Union Army (the First South Carolina Volunteers, in this case) were not paid for the first 18 months they served. When they were finally paid, it was at half pay until 1864, at which point they were granted full (and back) pay. She reports that their immediate white officers supported them in getting full pay. In the meantime, she describes their wives supporting their families by doing laundry for the troops and baking pies. SKT herself "gave [her] services willingly for four years and three months without receiving a dollar."

Throughout the war, she was often one of few women with her husband's unit. She taught soldiers to read, nursed soldiers with small pox, and helped with the wounded after battles. She almost died herself when a boat sank in transit between two islands off the cost of Georgia at the end of 1864.

She was in Charleston in late February 1865 when the Confederate army fled before the advancing Union, leaving the city in flames.

The fire had been burning fiercely for a day and night. When we landed, under a flag of truce, our regiment went to work assisting the citizens in subduing the flames. It was a terrible scene. For three or four days the men fought the fire, saving the property and effects of the people, yet these white men and women could not tolerate our black Union soldiers, for many of them had formerly been their slaves; and although these brave men risked life and limb to assist them in their distress, men and even women would sneer and molest them whenever they met them.

The parts of the book about her life after the war are less detailed. She taught for several years, then went into service work with wealthy white families, eventually moving to Boston. Her first husband — who had survived the entire Civil War — died in 1866, when she was just 18. She remarried in 1879 at age 31, so her last names are her two husbands' last names, King and Taylor. Her own birth name is not mentioned explicitly in the book, though at the beginning her father's last name is given, as well as her mother's father's.

The end of the book is written about what was the present day when she wrote (1902), with the chapter heading "Thoughts on Present Conditions." She wrote,

I wonder if our white fellow men realize the true sense or meaning of brotherhood? ... we thought our race was forever freed 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, I sometimes ask, "Was the war in vain?"

In this "land of the free," we are burned, tortured, and denied a fair trial, murdered for any imaginary wrong conceived in the brain of the negro-hating white man. There is no redress for us from a government which promised to protect all under its flag.

This was four years after the Wilmington coup, in the timeframe described so well by Khalil Gibran Muhammad in The Condemnation of Blackness. and when Ida B. Wells was campaigning against lynching.  

At one point she mentions that the Daughters of the Confederacy were petitioning then to prohibit performances of Uncle Tom's Cabin because it "would have a very bad effect on the children who might see the drama." Shades of our current critical race theory panic! She counters that with this:

Do these Confederate Daughters ever send petitions to prohibit the atrocious lynchings and wholesale murdering and torturing of the negro? Do you ever hear of them fearing this would have a bad effect on the children?

The book ends with more of her thoughts on segregated train cars in the South, which she experienced when she had to travel to Shreveport, Louisiana, to join her dying son just a few years before the book came out. It was soon after Plessy v. Ferguson made separate but "equal" completely legal, though it had been in practice long before that, making a mockery of all the things Susie King Taylor thought were won in the Civil War.

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