Trailblazing teacher, dedicated nurse and Civil War veteran, Susie King Taylor is a remarkable figure in both local and national history. Born into slavery in Liberty County in 1848, Taylor relocated to Savannah at the age of seven to live with her grandmother. It was here that Taylor began a secret education at the behest of her grandmother, who arranged for her to attend two clandestine schools taught by free African American women. Taylor excelled academically to the point that she exceeded her teachers. One year after the Civil War began, she moved back to Liberty County to be with her mother and rumors about Yankees bringing freedom circulated among the enslaved community.
Once Union forces launched their attack on Confederate-held Fort Pulaski, some slaves took the chaos brought on by the fighting as an opportunity to escape. Taylor’s uncle led her to a federal gunboat, and she became free at 14 years old. The ship’s commander was astonished by her literacy skills and arranged for her to teach at a children’s school on St. Simon’s Island. In this position, Taylor taught as many as 40 children each day and even more adults at night, becoming the first known African American to teach at a freedmen’s school in Georgia.
Later, Taylor relocated to Beaufort, S.C., where one of the first African American regiments, the 1st South Carolina Volunteer Infantry Regiment, was stood up in the fall of 1862. Taylor served as the regimental laundress along with nurse and educator, teaching the regiment of former slaves how to read and write. She married Sgt. Edward King of the unit in 1862, and they continued to serve until the regiment was mustered out of service in 1866. The couple relocated to Savannah after the war where she opened a private school and taught freedmen’s children. Sadly, her husband died shortly after and the opening of a public school shuttered her private school. Taylor found work as a domestic servant for some time thereafter.
In 1872, she relocated to Boston where she married Russell Taylor. There she engaged in active work with the Woman’s Relief Corps, which was a national organization for female veterans of the Civil War. In 1902, she published her memoir “Reminiscences of My Life in Camp,” becoming the first Black woman to write such a memoir on her Civil War experiences, before passing a decade later.
Taylor spent her life as a champion of literacy among the African American community. Her exemplary legacy and local ties are more than worthy of recognition here in the Hostess City. For these reasons, Taylor is being honored as the first woman and person of color to have one of Savannah’s historic squares bear her name.
For nearly four years Susie King Taylor Center for Jubilee has led the campaign to rename Calhoun Square in honor of Taylor. Savannah will soon rededicate the square as Taylor Square, which sits at the intersection of Abercorn and East Wayne Streets. The square was formerly named for John C. Calhoun, a past U.S. vice president from South Carolina who was a staunch supporter of slavery.
The Susie King Taylor Center for Jubilee is a grassroots organization that works to change local policies for the betterment of the community and all of its inhabitants. Renaming Calhoun Square has been one of the most important tasks on the center’s agenda over the last few years.
“Calhoun is pro-slavery, and we’re taxpayers, so we wanted to have his name off of a public square. There’s a state law that says you cannot remove Confederate names. That is the law. What we do as a grassroots organization is organize local citizens to go to the local government and change the policy. And so, that’s what happened here in this situation,” said Patt Gunn, the center’s co-founder.
The effort started after she learned that Calhoun and Whitefield Squares were unmarked burial grounds for poor whites and enslaved people, respectively, through her work in Savannah’s guided tour scene. Upon confirming this discovery with official city reports, Gunn submitted an application to the city to rename the square. Initially, the organization sought for Calhoun Square to be renamed Sankofa Square, but neighborhood residents preferred for the square to be named after a person like other squares.
“I knew right away that it should be Susie King Taylor. I knew her history. My co-director Rosalyn Rouse knows so much about Susie King Taylor, and she co-educated me about [her]. . . She did so many things in terms of educating and the bravery of running those schools. She was the one,” said Gunn.
The process to change the name was lengthy and not without difficulty, but the center’s coalition amassed about 40 dedicated members who were committed to the cause.
“[Our] volunteers were from all over Chatham County and from all walks of life. We had workers. We had retirees. We had educators. We had students from Susie King Taylor community school and other young people, artists. It was a very diverse group, all hues, and we decided we’re going to form a coalition, and that’s what we did,” she said.
The coalition examined city information to uncover the process for renaming a square.
“We looked at the city’s information and found that there are squares and there are parks. And when we looked at the actual renaming of the square, we found a category that we felt we qualified for. It said you only have to get 51 percent of the neighbors to support it. It has to be an organization, and we checked off everything that was on the list, and the city said yes,” Gunn said. “We were able to get 51 percent of the neighbors to support this three times, but each time we got it, someone would sell their house and then we’d be back to square one. So that’s when policy comes in. It’s like, you’ve hit a wall and now what do we do? You’ve got to change the policy.”
The coalition was able to gain the support of the city manager, who helped them find a path forward. In November, the city council voted to remove Calhoun’s name and make the renaming a competitive process that received more than 300 entries. From that pool, 14 finalists were identified, with the council ultimately selecting Taylor as the new namesake for the square. The renaming marks the first time in 140 years that a square has undergone a name change.
“The last time a square’s name was changed was in 1883, July the 18th, to be exact. . . when St. James Square was changed to Telfair Place, which became Telfair Square,” said Savannah Mayor Van Johnson during a city council meeting on Aug. 25 of last year. “Public property naming is an extremely important process that reflects on the values and ideals of our community. It was clear to us that the square formerly named Calhoun Square did not deserve to remain named Calhoun Square. So we removed the name . . . What he stood for was not what Savannah stands for, and [he has] no real connection to our community whatsoever.”
After hearing various citizens make their case for their nominations, the council made the historic decision to rename the square after Taylor.
“It’s one thing to make history. It’s something else to make sense. And in this case, we’re making both. . . In recognizing Susie King Taylor, we’re also recognizing all of those other names and all of those other people of all colors, and all hues, and of all genders who [had] hoped that this day would come,” said Johnson.
Taylor Square will be officially dedicated on Saturday, Feb. 10 at 11 a.m. during a special unveiling event. The city will host an hour-long formal presentation in collaboration with the Center for Jubilee.
“From 12–2 p.m., we’ll have all kinds of festivities like music. We’re going to have the Gullah Geechee Shouters from Darien, the Susie King Taylor Community Choir. We’ll have educational groups. Massie Heritage Center is also participating. So just a lot of events where people can come and enjoy in celebration of [Taylor],” said Gunn.
The city will also observe a reflection period for one hour that day at 6 p.m. at the square. Gunn sees the renaming of the square not as an erasure of a difficult history but a fuller explanation of that history.
“I think that you have to tell the whole story. One of the things the mayor has done is to make sure that there is signage, which he has already gotten pre-approved by the monument and sites committee, that tells the original history. This used to be Calhoun Square, and they’re going to tell the history of who he was and then give the date when it was renamed. . . That will be in the square,” she said. “Our marker will have Taylor Square on it. Our goal long-term, once we get this unveiling done, is to create a memorial so we can have a beautiful memorial or statue in that square of Susie King Taylor, with no erasure. We want the entire story.”
Gunn added that the square renaming could not have been possible without the valiant efforts of the coalition members and volunteers who gave generously of their time and energy in support of this pursuit.
“The heroes and ‘sheroes’ who I want to commend who gave us the strength to do this are the neighbors who lived around the squares. They were the ones who got the 51 percent signatures. They were the ones who walked the neighborhood in the evening hours. Some of them were elders asking the neighbors to sign so that we could have a square that doesn’t offend people. They were the ones who lost friendships. They took the risk. And they were the ones who walked those areas when it was not safe for me and other African Americans to knock on those doors,” Gunn said. “I just want to commend them for their bravery in helping us to get this done. If it were not for them, it may have been a longer process. I call them my 21st century abolitionists. They’re just awesome.”
To learn more about the Susie King Taylor Center for Jubilee or how to get involved, visit centerforjubilee.com/.