Hidden History: Susie King Taylor escaped slavery, became a Civil War nurse, teacher and activist

MIDWAY, Ga. (WSAV) – For some, the search for knowledge leads to unlikely places.

“I came here on this quest looking for something. But what I came looking for was looking for me, too.”

That is the case for Hermina Glass-Hill, a historian and writer who has made it her mission to elevate a story she says is seldom told, that of Susie Baker King Taylor.

“Harriet Tubman I know. Sorjourner Truth. Ida B. Wells I know. But I knew nothing of this incredible Susie Baker King Taylor,” said Glass-Hill.

Born into slavery in Liberty County, Taylor made her mark as a Civil War laundress, freedom fighting nurse, teacher, activist and even author of her own autobiography. These incredible feats were unheard of during a time when women and African Americans were marginalized.

“She was a survivor. She went to Savannah at the age of 6 years old and her grandmother, Dolly, who was a washerwoman between here and Savannah, had these connections. So she learned how to read at one of those secrets schools in Savannah,” explained Glass-Hill.

She utilized her knowledge to teach others and by the age of 13, she escaped to freedom.

“And my interest came when I began researching the United States Colored Troops. These are runaway men from southern plantations. Free men from northern states who joined the Union Army in 1862 and fought for freedom and liberation of black people. And in that discovery, I discovered there were black women who participated and I stumbled upon her autobiography which was published in 1902 and from there, this passion just grew. Before her introduction in that book, I knew nothing of her.”

Glass-Hill is now on a mission to make sure everyone knows her name. So, she’s spearheading a campaign, speaking to area schools and traveling the country to bring more attention to Taylor’s accomplishments.

She even left her hometown of Atlanta to take up residence in Liberty County.

“The more I read about her, the more intrigued I became and so I came down here to speak last February for Black History Month, and in coming here, my husband and I went to the Isle of Wight where she was enslaved. She mentions that in her autobiography. And I just started to walk the path that she might have taken. The more I walked, the more this spiritual presence came upon me and said you should move to Midway.”

The Isle of Wight is also where Glass-Hill finds inspiration. It’s where Taylor is believed to have escaped to freedom. A major turning point that ultimately lead to the liberation of others.

“Her skills in the underground schools were used during the Civil War by the Union army. And at that moment, she became a teacher of hundreds of runaway children, men, women who were illiterate. And so, if we look exponentially in terms of her influence, the hundreds of escaped slaves,  runaways, who learned how to read under her tutelage, and then they are teaching their children; her influence is invaluable.”

Now considered a premier scholar on Taylor’s life, Glass-Hill spends much of her time on research, scouring documents, even searching through cemeteries and connecting the dots.

“I found some Bakers in this area who are potentially related to her. I found a younger brother of Susie King Taylor at the Colonial Church less than a mile away.”

With every revelation, Glass-Hill says there’s still mystery, but also an opportunity to learn and to grow.

“This is really about remembering. Remembering her story. Remembering the horrors of slavery and using all of this as a flashpoint for galvanizing the community around preservation of African American history, African American culture, African American cultural sights.”

With the help of the local community, Glass-Hill has made a few other discoveries.

“Susie King Taylor was a member of this church. Its antecedent was Midway Temple Presbyterian Church, which was located in the cemetery across the street. She was married; I have her marriage records. I have the location of where her mother was after the Civil War.”

Hermina Glass-Hill is the founder and Executive Director of the Susie King Taylor Institute and Ecology Center.

In April, 2019, they hosted the first conference in the world to honor the civil war heroine, marking the 156 anniversary of her escape for freedom.