Warren Square is the next stop on our quest for romantic Savannah history. But there is certainly nothing romantic about poor General Joseph Warren, for whom the square is named. Not only was he mortally wounded by the English at the Battle of Bunker Hill...history tells us that the English soldiers, not satisfied with just killing him...they then sliced and diced him! Indeed, he deserved to have a square named after him.
But this is not the story of General Warren...it is the story of Susie King Taylor, and we begin our story at 410 Bryan Street and walk behind it on Bay Lane to see a carriage house. To be sure it has changed a bit since the 1800's, but in this carriage house was one of the first "secret schools," taught by Mary Woodhouse, a free woman of color and a seamstress.
What is a "secret school" you might well ask. In the late 1700's, Savannah passed a law forbidding slaves to be taught to read or write; however, in 1817, the city passed a law that free blacks could not be taught to read or write. That law ushered in the era of the "secret schools," and Mary Woodhouse would open such a school for black children. But Mary was clever. You see...black children could be taught a trade, but not to read or write, so she gave each of her 30-some children in her school a piece of brightly-colored material to take with them as they came and went to her schoolroom. Police and the neighbors thought Mary was teaching the children to be seamstresses or tailors.
One of her students would make her mark during the Civil War and afterward, because of her start in Mary's school. That student was Susie King Taylor.
Susie was born into slavery in 1848 on the Grest Farm, about 35 miles from Savannah. When she was seven years old, Mr. Grest allowed her and her brother to come to Savannah to live with her grandmother, Dolly Reed, a free woman of color who lived on Warren Square. A neighbor and friend of Mary Woodhouse, Dolly made sure her grandchildren were enrolled in the secret school.
A quick and avid learner, Susie was soon sent to yet another secret school for additional tutoring. Susie also formed a close friendship with an Irish classmate, Katie O'Connor, who told her she could teach Susie even more at night, as long as Katie's father did not find out. She taught Susie for four months. But suddenly Katie was dispatched to a convent and Susie never saw her again.
However, the high-school-age son of Dolly Reed's landlord took over teaching Susie until 1861, when, as a member of the Savannah Volunteer Guards, he was ordered into battle.
In 1862 the Union troops were firing on Fort Pulaski, and Susie and her brother were sent back to the Grest Farm. From there Susie's uncle took the family by boat to St. Catherine' Island on the Georgia Coast. A Union gunboat then transported them to St. Simon's Island, and Susie met her first Yankee, a Captain Whitmore, who was amazed that Susie could read and write. She was asked to set up a school for the children on the Island, and the Union officers supplied her with all the necessary teaching materials. So at age 14, Susie was teaching 40-some children.
In the fall of 1862, they were told to evacuate to St. Simons and Susie was brought along with the Union Troops tp Beaufort, SC, where she became a laundress for the Union officers. Nearby at Port Royal, SC, the newly formed First South Carolina Volunteers, the first all-black slave regiment, was stationed. Also near was the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment, the very first all-black regiment to serve in the Civil War, but the South Carolina Volunteers would be known as the first all-slave regiment to serve. However, the Union officers soon realized that none of these slave volunteers could read or write. They sought out Susie once again, and she began teaching these troops at night. Sgt. Edward King of the regiment helped her with the teaching and they married in 1862. Susie then traveled with this group known as Company E.
The Union officers also soon realized that Susie had a strong knowledge of herbal medicine, and they pressed her into service as a nurse, thus making Susie King the first black Army nurse. While working with the wounded men, she would meet Clara Barton, founder of the Red Cross. As a sidelight, Susie also became proficient with the musket and thought cleaning guns was great fun, as she accompanied Company E into their skirmishes.
In 1866 when the command came to "lay down arms," Edward and Susie came back to Savannah and opened a school for black children in their home on South Broad (now Oglethorpe Avenue) for about 20 children plus a few adults. The tuition was $1 per month.
A year later, the Beach Institute, a free school for children, opened, taking most of their students. Moreover, in 1866 Edward King died before their son was born, forcing Susie to forge another trail. She taught for a year in Liberty County, but missed city life and returned to Savannah. Her mother took care of Susie's son, while she went to work for Mrs. Charles Greene on Madison Square as a laundress. She traveled with the family to Boston each summer as their cook and even won a cooking contest at a fair.
When Mrs. Greene went to Paris, Susie began working for a number of Boston families until she married Russell Taylor in 1879. She would travel South only once more...this time to Shreveport to be with her son until he died. Her experiences while traveling by train through the South to reach her son were so disheartening that she never returned.
She did, however, remained loyal to the men, black and white, whom she had met during the war and spent the remainder of her life fighting and advocating for the black soldiers to receive the back pay due them, as well as their pensions. In 1886 she was instrumental in helping to organize the Women's Relief Corps, an auxiliary to the G. A. R.
And where in Savannah today might you find a trace of this spirited woman who never gave up? If you're on River Street, you may see a Water Taxi leaving for Hutchinson Island named "The Susie King Taylor." If so, give a tip of the fedora or a smart salute in honor of this amazing woman...teacher, nurse, advocate...who died in 1912.
Let's continue on our way, discovering even more of the romance that is Savannah's history.
12/10/16 - Copyright