Remembering the First Black U.S. Army Nurse During Black History Month

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In the spirit of Black History Month, the astounding achievements of a relatively obscure nurse deserve to be illuminated. The purpose of this piece is to remember Susie King Taylor, the first black U.S. Army nurse.

by TheCommuter TheCommuter, BSN, RN

Specializes in Case mgmt., rehab, (CRRN), LTC & psych. Has 16 years experience.

Who is the first black U.S. Army nurse?

Remembering the First Black U.S. Army Nurse During Black History Month

Most people in the nursing community are at least somewhat knowledgeable about the stories behind the more popular historical figures of the profession. After all, instant name recognition occurs in the vast majority of nurses when the names Florence Nightingale, Dorothea Dix, Mary Eliza Mahoney, Linda Richards, Clara Barton, and Margaret Sanger are mentioned. We have all learned about these remarkable individuals and their achievements during the course of our nursing educations. These aforementioned women are arguably the pioneers of the nursing profession because, without their contributions, nursing might not have ever evolved into a profession in its own right.

Nonetheless, many other wondrous nurses from yesteryear have faded into languid obscurity along with their stories and accomplishments. Susie King Taylor, the first African-American army nurse, is one notable historical figure whose story is rarely brought to light by modern day nursing textbooks. In the spirit of Black History Month, her story will be revived and she will be remembered for all the feats that she accomplished during her 64 years on earth.

Susie King Taylor was born Susan Baker on August 6, 1848. She had been born into slavery in Liberty County, Georgia to parents Hagar and Raymond Baker, and was the oldest of nine children. In an era where formally educating slaves was vehemently against the law, her personal road to informal educational attainment began at age seven. It was during this time period that she started learning to read and write by way of attending a 'secret school' that was operated by a freed African-American female named Mrs. Woodhouse and her daughter, Mary Jane. She also received secret informal reading lessons from a white playmate named Katie O'Connor.

At the age of 14, Baker and a number of other African-American people obtained their freedom by escaping to St. Simons Island, one of the Georgia Sea Islands. The year was 1862 and the U.S. was in the midst of the full-blown Civil War conflict. At that time, St. Simons Island was occupied by Union Army forces, and her advanced literacy skills had attracted the attention of several officers. After all, it was exceedingly uncommon for former slaves to be educated or even know how to read and write at a marginal level, but Baker was a resounding exception.

She agreed to organize a rudimentary school upon the request of Commodore Louis M. Goldsborough, and thus, became the first African-American teacher at a freedmen's school in the state of Georgia. Baker taught basic literacy skills to 40 freed children and a handful of free adults. She taught at the school for approximately six months until the end of 1862, the time when St. Simons Island was evacuated. During her six months at the freedmen's school, she met and married Sgt. Edward King, a non-commissioned officer in the Port Royal encampment of the 1st South Carolina volunteers, which later changed its name to the 33rd U.S. Colored Troops subdivision.

She followed her husband's regiment for three years, providing an assortment of services along the way. She taught Union soldiers how to read and write during their off-hours. She also served as a nurse, rendering care to wounded and dying soldiers and attending to injuries alongside camp doctors. Susie King made frequent visits to the first regimental hospital for black soldiers, located in Beaumont, South Carolina. It was at this hospital that she became acquainted with and worked alongside Clara Barton, the renowned founder of the Red Cross. King served as an army nurse until the Civil War ended in 1865.

Her husband, Edward, died in 1866. After teaching freedmen in Georgia for several more years, she relocated to Boston with her two young children and eventually got remarried. She married a man named Russell L. Taylor in 1879 and, from this point forward, became known as Susie King Taylor. She spent her later years working as a domestic worker for a white Bostonian family before dying in relative obscurity in 1912.

Susie King Taylor is one of the few African-American figures from the Civil War who captured her recollections in the written word. Her memoir, Reminiscences of My Life in Camp with the 33rd United States Colored Troops Late 1st S.C. Volunteers, tells the story of what is known about her life and experiences during wartime. Taylor's compassion for the sick, injured and wounded shine through her words. She writes, "It seems strange how our aversion to seeing suffering is overcome in war, --how we are able to see the most sickening sights, such as men with their limbs blown off and mangled by the deadly shells, without a shudder, and instead of turning away, how we hurry to assist in alleviating their pain . . . with feelings only of sympathy and pity" (Taylor, 1902).

Taylor's accomplishments deserve to be highlighted since she lived a full life that involved unselfish service to others in the form of teaching and nursing. Allnurses.com Inc. wishes to keep the spirit and memory of Susie King Taylor alive.

RESOURCES

Butchart, R.E. (2013). Susie King Taylor (1848-1912). New Georgia Encyclopedia. Retrieved from Susie King Taylor (1848-1912) | New Georgia Encyclopedia

Malburne, M. (2004). Summary of Reminiscences of My Life in Camp with the 33rd United States Colored troops Late S.C. Volunteers. Retrieved from Summary of Reminiscences of My Life in Camp with the 33d United States Colored Troops Late 1st S. C. Volunteers

Taylor, S.K. (1902). Reminiscences of My Life in Camp with the 33rd United States Colored troops Late S.C. Volunteers. Boston, MA: Susie King Taylor.

TheCommuter, BSN, RN, CRRN is a longtime physical rehabilitation nurse who has varied experiences upon which to draw for her articles. She was an LPN/LVN for more than four years prior to becoming a Registered Nurse.

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20 Comment(s)

vintagemother, ADN, CNA, LVN, RN

Specializes in Med-Surg, Psych, Geri, LTC, Tele. 2,711 Posts

Thank you for sharing this, Commuter! I'll share this story with my children.

amoLucia

Specializes in retired LTC. 7,641 Posts

TY for the information. I always find interest in learning more about nursing leaders, esp those for whom I have little previous knowledge.

I find it interesting that you bring up Dorothea Dix. She too, was an activist during the Civil War. She addressed care of indigent mentally ill in several states and in Europe. I find her history esp interesting as she was fundamental in the establishment of several mental heath institutions (aka 'lunatic asylums' in their day). This included the founding of NJ's Trenton Psychiatric Hospital.

I have visited TPH in the distant past. I toured one old building and it still resonates in my memory. To think that that bldg was an IMPROVEMENT upon conditions that existed PREVIOUSLY to DD is a sobering awareness of how far nsg/health care has come thru the efforts of nsg pioneers.

Hoosier_RN, MSN

Specializes in dialysis. Has 29 years experience. 3,362 Posts

Thanks for this article. When I think of nurses, I often think Mary Seacole trumps Florence Nightingale. They began nursing around the same time in history, but who actually began nursing first varies by historical account. Mary was a black Jamaican, and had little educational background. To me, nurses who shaped our history, regardless of any determinant factor, is impressive. We've not always been a trusted, looked up to, profession. I love the history!

TheCommuter, BSN, RN

Specializes in Case mgmt., rehab, (CRRN), LTC & psych. Has 16 years experience. 224 Articles; 27,608 Posts

RNinIN said:
When I think of nurses, I often think Mary Seacole trumps Florence Nightingale. They began nursing around the same time in history, but who actually began nursing first varies by historical account. Mary was a black Jamaican, and had little educational background.

And, per several historical accounts, the politically incorrect possibility is that Florence Nightingale allegedly refused to work with Mary Seacole due to cultural bias and race-based issues (read: didn't want to work alongside a black female).

Unfortunately, that historical time period was not the most enlightened with regards to issues of race and class.

herring_RN, ASN, BSN

Specializes in Critical care, tele, Medical-Surgical. Has 50 years experience. 3,651 Posts

Thank you for this! I didn't know about her.

I did find some photos of her.

Susie%20King%20Taylor_zps66evtvly.jpeg Susie%20Taylor%20Army%20Nurse_zps56rnanax.jpeg

invisigoth

68 Posts

The best reliable info about Mary Seacole is in her autobiography. British soldiers worshipped her as Mother Seacole. She spent her own money to go serve the British army and when she had none left they remembered her. I highly recommend her book which is on amazon.

invisigoth

68 Posts

She talks about her encounters with Americans during her travels to Panama,etc. It wasn't exactly a welcome mat :( I read her book and decided to stay in nursing school.

nursel56

Specializes in Peds/outpatient FP,derm,allergy/private duty. Has 46 years experience. 6,991 Posts

Thank you for this, Commuter, and for the information about the book. It's timely because lately I've been reading Civil War memoirs like a fiend and have not seen that one. :up:

Hoosier_RN, MSN

Specializes in dialysis. Has 29 years experience. 3,362 Posts

herring_RN said:
Thank you for this! I didn't know about her.

I did find some photos of her.

Thanks for the photos. I like a face to put with the name

NursesRmofun, ASN, RN

Specializes in Registered Nurse. 1,239 Posts

Thanks for sharing. She had a remarkable life.

Opra

5 Posts

Thank you so much for this, I only knew about Mary Seacole .