Memories at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

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Freedom Center Voices

Memories at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

For today’s #MuseumWeek2020 hashtag #MuseumMomentsMW, I thought I’d share some of my favorite museum memories. The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center opened in August 2004. I came in October that year to volunteer for ONE weekend and am still here 15 years later!

As part of our Education team, I’ve spent many years interacting with groups of our children through school tours, outreach visits to classrooms and as a costumed interpreter. I enjoy thinking back on the impact we’ve made by teaching them about American history. The most rewarding part is to watch their faces light up at the stories we share, especially when they recognize names of people, places or things in the story. I love to hear them ask questions, chime in, and share what they have learned during our time together. I’m always moved by their profound statements like “Where did America go wrong?” or “Why did they treat people like that?” or “When I grow up, I want to…” They are a bright spot in what we do.

There are so many stories that I could share from my time with the museum. From the incredible staff trips we took to historical sites around the country (Charleston, SC; Richmond, VA; Memphis, TN; Atlanta, GA and Selma, AL just to name a few) to seeing or meeting the many famous celebrity guests who have visited over the years... First Lady Michelle Obama, Andrew Young, and Susan Taylor have all walked our halls. One of my favorite performers, Lionel Richie, came once and I was starstruck. We also had the chance to host Ms. Angelia Davis, Ms. Nikki Giovanni and MC Lyte. I’m blown away remembering all I’ve seen and the people I’ve met since joining the team in 2004.

But by far, the best memories I have come from the bonds built with an amazing group of coworkers, docents and volunteers who have all rallied around our common purpose. Each year has brought new faces, gifts, and laughs to our Freedom Center family. We’ve also shed a few tears sending off talented colleagues, interns, and volunteers to make their mark on the world. Saying goodbye is difficult, but each time we make sure they know they have been a valuable part of our story.

Novella wearing one of many costumes

Novella wearing one of many costumes

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Many of my photos have been lost, but I did salvage a few that capture just small of portion of my favorite #MuseumMoments at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center—scroll down to take a look.

I’ve had a lot of memories here in 15 years, can’t wait to have many more. Did my post remind you of any special memories at the Freedom Center (or any other museum that you’ve visited)? Recognize anyone in my photos? Let us know—we’d love to hear from you!

Novella Nimmo

Education Coordinator
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

Getting dressed for “Our Foremothers”

Getting dressed for “Our Foremothers”

Bengals Football Team and Novella Nimmo

Bengals Football Team and Novella Nimmo

In honor of Jacqueline Wallace

In honor of Jacqueline Wallace

In honor of Jacqueline Wallace

Left to right: Linda Wesseler, Pam Dock, Julie Gore, Novella Nimmo, Verneida Britton, Keili Ferguson, Edna Keown and Jyreika Gues

Angelia Davis and Donna Thomas

Angelia Davis and Donna Thomas

Civil Rights Leader Marian Spencer

Civil Rights Leader Marian Spencer

First Lady Michelle Obama

First Lady Michelle Obama

Volunteer Appreciation Month

Volunteer Appreciation Month

Every Child Succeeds

Every Child Succeeds

The Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793

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Freedom Center Voices

The Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793

When news of COVID-19 began to sweep the country, it got me thinking about the past outbreaks in United States history. The first that came to mind was the 1793 yellow fever epidemic that gripped our then-largest American city and nation’s capital—Philadelphia, PA.

At the time, yellow fever was known as ‘American plague.’ Catching this disease was serious and caused the afflicted a lot of suffering before they ultimately died. We now know that this highly infectious virus is carried and transferred by mosquitoes, but this fact wasn’t discovered until much later in 1881. The unknown caused fear and panic to tear through the city. It had struck our shores before, but this was the worst wave of yellow fever in American history.

As the disease spread, Dr. Benjamin Rush and Dr. James Hutchinson warned Mayor Matthew Clarkson of the possibility of an epidemic. The Mayor met with other doctors, government officials and citizens to find the best course of action to fight the disease.

Free African Society. Established in 1787 under the leadership of Richard Allen and Absolom Jones, this organization fostered identity, leadership, and unity among Blacks and became the forerunner of the first African-American churches in this city. (Historical Marker at 6th and Lombard Sts. Philadelphia PA - Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission 1991)

As the death toll climbed and thousands fled the city in fear, Dr. Rush wrote a letter to a local newspaper insinuating the idea that African Americans were somehow immune to yellow fever.  The newspaper then wrote an article pleading with free African Americans to help with the sick. Absalom Jones and Richard Allen, two of Philadelphia’s most prominent African Americans at the time, met with members of the Free African Society and decided to offer assistance to the citizens of Philadelphia.

“Early in September, a solicitation appeared in the public papers, to the people of colour to come forward and assist the distressed, perishing, and neglected sick; with a kind of assurance, that people of our colour were not liable to take the infection. Upon which we and a few others met and consulted how to act on so truly alarming and melancholy occasion. After some conversation, we found a freedom to go forth, confiding in Him who can preserve in the midst of a burning fiery furnace, sensible that it was our duty to do all the good we could to our suffering fellow mortals.”

- Richard Allen and Absalom Jones

African American women nursed the sick and dying, while African American men mainly tended to transporting the sick and burying the dead. These heroic individuals, who were denied citizenship after the American Revolution and treated as inferior, risked their lives to help save the very people who oppressed them. In the end, the yellow fever outbreak claimed thousands of lives including approximately 240 African Americans.

In a time when black communities are being disproportionately affected by Covid-19 in the United States, it seems more important than ever to remember the story of these heroes who once rose to the occasion, risked themselves to work the front lines, and saved lives. That work continues today, and we are grateful.

James Harrington

Manager of Interpretive Services
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

Remembering Healers and Herbal Remedies

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Freedom Center Voices

Remembering Healers and Herbal Remedies

This week I would like to honor healers, women that brought the tradition of herbal healing to America from Africa using plants, roots, bark and animals to make medicine. Enslavement brought a lot of healers from Africa. If they came across plants they didn't know, they learned about them from either Native Americans or by trial and error. There was always a healer around that could help ease the pain and suffering of both the enslaved and the free.

In one of my previous blog posts, I shared that Susie King Taylor was a healer who used knowledge passed down from her grandmother. In that post I only mention Sassafras as a blood purifier, but it was also used for joint pain. Below is a list of some of the herbs used by enslaved people, partly because many of them distrusted man-made medicines. Everything listed here was either boiled into tea or made into a paste to dress wounds:

  • Pennyroyal – Pain reliever, also used to relieve the pain of childbirth (Don’t know of any medicine that can do that…)
  • Snakeroot – Purified the body (Horrible taste. Completely cleaned out the internal system, so you would need to stay close to the bathroom…)
  • Rat Vein – Treating colic babies (Smelled bad. Since there were no bottles, a rag was soaked and baby watch closely so they wouldn’t choke on it)
  • Wild Cherry Bark – Fever reducer
  • Sage – Soothed a sore throat
  • Horehound – Cold treatment (Found in some cough syrups today)

That was the 1800s, but how about the 1900s? This reminds me of some of the home remedies that were given to me as a young child in Virginia:

  • Cod-liver oil – Given for colds. Mixed w/honey and a side of orange slices to cover the bad taste (it didn’t help)
  • Castor Oil – For general sickness
  • Lye soap – Shaved and mixed in warm water to use as an enema
  • Wet Tobacco – For bee stings
  • Condensed milk & stale bread – Skin infection (I was told this would bring boils instead of illness)
  • Father John – I don’t know what was in it, but it tasted worse than cod liver oil or castor oil
  • Garlic – Cold, whooping cough, foot pain, corns
  • Vinegar – Helped lower blood pressure
  • Fat back (fat from the back of a pig) – used to prevent gangrene from stepping on rusty nails and glass injuries (country living, we walked bare footed a lot…)

There were also herbs my grandmother and aunts used on us as children and we had no idea what they were. We were told “to take it or else,” so that’s what we did. Nobody wanted to find out what “or else” meant. Some common meds like Vicks Vapor Rub made a difference with fever. It was placed under my nose and rubbed on my chest and back. I was also given a little bit of it to eat, then wrapped in a hot towel to make me sweat. I did feel better the next morning.

As we laugh and ponder the different remedies that have been used for healing, I would like to thank and honor those that kept us here.  We have come a long way with medical treatment, and we thank all those today that stand on the front line, treating COVID-19, while we wait on a cure.

Now it’s your turn, let’s keep this rolling  If you can remember any home remedies not listed above, we’d love to hear from you. If none come to mind, maybe give someone older in your life a call and ask them. Let us know where they grew up. I am sure there were a lot of home remedies out there and I just scratched the surface.

Novella Nimmo

Education Coordinator
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

Robert Smalls

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Freedom Center Voices

Robert Smalls

In the early morning hours of May 13, 1862 on Charleston, South Carolina’s Southern Warf, Robert Smalls and a small group of freedom seekers embarked on a courageous journey to freedom. Like so many enslaved people, the desire for freedom was so profound that not even the risk of death could have stopped them. Once word spread of his heroic escape, he became the most famous African American in the country. From that day on, he would spend the rest of his life fighting for inclusive freedom for all African Americans.

“My race needs no special defense, for the past history of them in this country proves them to be the equal of any people anywhere. All they need is an equal chance in the battle of life.”

- Robert Smalls on November 1, 1895

Robert Smalls (1839-1915), nps.gov

Robert Smalls (1839-1915), nps.gov

Early Life

Robert Smalls was born on April 5, 1839 in Beaufort, South Carolina. He was enslaved by John McKee and worked as a house servant until the age of 12. After that, McKee leased Robert out to work as a waiter and sailor. When Smalls was 18, he worked out an agreement with McKee to keep some of his earnings. In time, he used his savings to purchase his wife and daughter from their owner for $800. Saving money to purchase family members was not uncommon at the time. It was done to keep families together and possibly give them the chance to be emancipated.

An Opportunity

Robert was sent to work on the steamship Planter in 1861 at 22 years old. The Planter was owned by John Ferguson, who leased it out to the Confederate military. The ship was used as a supply transport and a personal dispatch for General Roswell Ripley, the commander of the 2nd Military District of South Carolina. When the Union Navy set up a blockade 10 miles outside of Charleston, it gave Robert an idea. Robert had always thought about escaping with his wife and children, but never had an opportunity until then. During his time on the Planter, he devised an extraordinary plan to not only gain his own freedom, but freedom for 15 others as well. His plan was to commandeer the Planter, pick up his family and additional freedom seekers, and pilot it out to the Union blockade.

Even though Robert was already a skilled sailor, he studied as much as he could about operating the Planter. From commands, to routes, to signals, to engineering, he knew the key to his success was deception through knowledge. He even studied the body movements of General Ripley and Captain Charles Relyea to deceive the confederate soldiers on land. He believed if he could make the ship look like it was on a normal mission, he may have a chance. Smalls devised his plan with the other enslaved crew members on the Planter.

Escape

On the night of May 12, 1862, Captain Relyea ordered Smalls and the other enslaved crew members to guard the Planter while the Confederate sailors went home to stay with their families. This was actually a violation of General Orders, No. 5. That night, Smalls and the others disguised themselves as crew members. Smalls disguised himself as Captain Relyea, even wearing his straw hat. They sailed the ship up the Cooper River to pick up Smalls’ family and the other freedom seekers. Once everyone was on board, they turned around and headed down the Cooper River toward the Union blockade. This was the most dangerous part of the escape. Smalls had to pilot the ship through a gauntlet of forts and artillery stations. Any simple mistake could have aroused the suspicion of the Confederate soldiers manning their stations. The forts and artillery stations could have easily destroyed the Planter, killing everyone on board.

Some of Smalls’ crew wanted to try and sneak past the forts, but Smalls knew that the noise from the engine and the smoke coming out of the stacks made that impossible. Smalls knew they had to maintain their composure, stay the course, and make everything seem normal. The forts (Castle Pinckney, Fort Ripley, Fort Johnson and Fort Sumter) were also checkpoints for ships moving in and out of Charleston harbor. The ships and the checkpoints would signal each other as a means of communication. One by one, Smalls signaled the checkpoints and they signaled back. Before the Confederates knew what was going on, Smalls had successfully piloted the Planter out to the Union blockade.

When the Union sailors boarded the Planter, they were dismayed with the situation: 16 African Americans aboard a Confederate supply ship at a Union blockade. When Smalls met the Union sailors, he saluted them and said, “I am delivering this war material including these cannons and I think Uncle Abraham Lincoln can put them to good use.”

When word spread throughout the North about this incredible act, Smalls became the most famous African American in the country and a hero for the cause. The Confederacy offered a $2,000 reward for his capture. Smalls had humiliated the Confederacy, and challenged their belief of African American inferiority. How could an illiterate, enslaved man commandeer a Confederate ship, pilot it past all those checkpoints, and hand it over to the Union blockade? After gaining his freedom, he served the Union as the first African American Captain of a military vessel, the Planter and the Keokuk.

An image of Robert Smalls and the Planter from Harper’s Weekly, loc.org

An image of Robert Smalls and the Planter from Harper’s Weekly, loc.org

Legacy

After the war, Smalls decided to move back to South Carolina instead of leaving the South like many other African Americans did. He opened both a general store and a school to help his newly emancipated brothers and sisters. This was a courageous yet dangerous move, because Smalls was so well-known in the Charleston region for his actions. In addition to his business ventures, he also became editor of the Beaufort Southern Standard and eventually purchased the house of his deceased former owner, John McKee. In an act of kindness, he allowed Mrs. McKee to remain in the mansion.

Robert knew the road ahead for African Americans would be long and turbulent, so he decided to run for public office. Smalls knew that this was the best opportunity to fight for inclusive freedom legislation for African Americans. He was elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives in 1868, the state Senate in 1870, and eventually the U.S House of Representatives in 1875 where he served 5 terms.

Robert Smalls’ story should be an inspiration for us all. For most of us, it’s almost impossible to comprehend the reality of his experiences. From enslaved to a U.S. Representative and so much more. To honor Robert Smalls, his great-great grandchildren Michael and Helen Boulware-Moore worked with the South Carolina State Museum to create a travelling exhibit called “The Life and Times of Congressman Robert Smalls." Director Charles Burnett is also currently working with Amazon to develop a movie based on Robert Smalls’ life, called Steal Away.

“I think he is an unsung hero. Once again, it’s getting the story of Robert Smalls out to the public. I want [young people] to remember him as a ‘yes you can’ person. When we tell the story of Robert Smalls, we want [children] to be able to really understand that they have an opportunity. When they see a child who grew up enslaved, but ended his life as a five term United States congressman. If he can do it, than they can do it.”

- Helen Boulware-Moore, great-great granddaughter of Robert Smalls, thegrio.com

James Harrington

Manager of Interpretive Services
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

Mary Eliza Mahoney

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Freedom Center Voices

Mary Eliza Mahoney

Remembering Healers and Herbal Remedies

Since our last two blog posts featured outstanding men, I decided to feature an outstanding woman—Mary Eliza Mahoney (1845-1926). Mary Mahoney is known as the first African American to earn a nursing degree in the United States. Mary was born in Boston to previously enslaved parents who fled North Carolina seeking a life of freedom. Knowing at an early age that she wanted to become a nurse, she recognized she had a big obstacle to cross. A beautiful young women with dark skin and weighing only 90 pounds, her determination and heart outweighed the strongest of men. Bucking the traditional system, she never married (in that time, married women usually became housewives) and she devoted her life to caring for others.

At age 18, Mary found work at the New England Hospital for Women and Children, which was run by a staff of women. Mary worked at the hospital for 15 years as a cook, maid, laundress and nurse’s aide. In 1878, she was granted a new opportunity. She was finally accepted in to the hospital’s professional graduate school for nursing. It was an intensive 16-month program. Out of 42 students, only four passed. Mary was among the four.

After graduation, Mary worked as a private nurse for over 30 years. Due to the racial inequalities of the time, the private sector was the only option for an African American nurse. In 1911, Mary became the Director of the The Howard Colored Orphan Asylum for African American children in Long Island, New York, serving one year. At age 76, she became one of the first women to register to vote after the passage of the 19th amendment in 1920.

Unfortunately, 1923 brought on a new battle for Mary that she lost 3 years later. On January 4, 1926 she died of breast cancer at the age of 80. She is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in Everett, Massachusetts. In 1936, the National Association for Colored Graduate Nurses created the Mary Mahoney Award in honor of her achievements, still given today. In 1968, Mary Mahoney Award Winner Helen S. Miller, raised enough money along with other sororities to erect a memorial at Mahoney's gravesite. The memorial is visited by many and signifies the strength and resilience of Mary’s legacy.

As we wait out this pandemic that has taken over the world, we at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center thank all those health care professionals who continue to work the front line. Today, you are our freedom heroes.

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Novella Nimmo

Education Coordinator
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

Perspectives: David Walker

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Freedom Center Voices

Perspectives: David Walker

Born in Wilmington, N.C. of a free African American mother and an enslaved father, David Walker (c.1798 – 1830) was considered legally free. Slavery followed the condition of the mother, not the father. Even though he was techincally free, he still observed the horrors of enslavement. As a young child, he watched as a son was forced to whip his mother.

Walker traveled throughout the North as a young man, but eventually settled in Boston by 1825 and opened a used clothing store. He married Eliza Butler in 1826 and they had two children, Lydia and Edward. Lydia died before her second birthday, but Edward would become one of the first African Americans elected to the Massachusetts State Legislature in 1866.

Walker’s real passion, however, was for ending enslavement. He joined anti-enslavement groups (Massachusetts General Colored Association), wrote for the country’s first black newspaper (Freedom’s Journal), and became known for his eloquent speaking against enslavement. He was also associated with the Prince Hall Freemasonry.

In 1829 he wrote and published a pamphlet called Appeal, a radical call to African Americans to rise up in revolt against slave owners.  His Appeal was intended to spark a flame in abolitionists and show all Americans the hypocrisy that slavery presented in a country where “all men are created equal.”

“The man who would not fight under our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, in the glorious and heavenly cause of freedom and of God--to be delivered from the most wretched, abject and servile slavery, that ever a people was afflicted with since the foundation of the world, to the present day--ought to be kept with all of his children or family, in slavery, or in chains, to be butchered by his cruel enemies.”

Walker used his clothing store to spread the message, sewing copies of his pamphlet into the lining of sailors’ clothes. The sailors sympathetic to his cause could then distribute the pamphlets all across the South. Reaction to his Appeal was swift. Outraged slaveholders helped pass laws forbidding African Americans to learn to read and banning the spread of anti-enslavement pamphlets. The state of Georgia issued a $10,000 reward for Walker’s capture.

Even though his supporters begged him to flee to Canada, Walker refused, saying “Somebody must die in this cause. I may be doomed to the stake and the fire, or to the scaffold tree, but it is not in me to falter if I can promote the work of emancipation.”

On August 6, 1830, shortly after a third edition of his pamphlet was published and one week after his daughter died of tuberculosis, David Walker passed away.  His Appeal however, continued to inspire people to fight against enslavement. From Nat Turner to John Brown, the idea of ending enslavement through violence became a common theme.  In the end, David Walker was right. It took violence, the Civil War, and the death of over 600,000 human beings to finally bring an end to enslavement.

David Walker’s legacy continued to live on through the Black Nationalist Movement and through individuals like Martin R. Delany, Malcom X, Huey P. Newton and Angela Davis. Malcom X aggressively spoke out against racism, and gaining equality “by any means necessary.” Huey P. Newton and Angela Davis proudly marched down streets with rifles and shotguns in hand, showing the country they were not afraid to use violence to defend themselves against racist attacks. Even today, organizations like Black Lives Matter, continue to answer Walker’s call for self-resilience and self-determination. David Walker’s Appeal and its ideology will continue to resonate for generations to come.

James Harrington

Manager of Interpretive Services
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

Keeping Our History Healthy: John S. Rock

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Freedom Center Voices

Keeping Our History Healthy: John S. Rock

For as far back as we can recall, African American professionals have distinctly served a dual purpose in American society. The social realities and legacies call for African Americans to be brilliant in their respective occupations while being an example of social uplift for the discounted and disenfranchised. John S. Rock is one of those brilliant examples and forebears who are often overlooked. As a master of several professions and an activist, Rock was an intellectual force who contributed towards the liberation and emancipation of millions.

John S. Rock (1825-1866) was born to free black parents in Salem, New Jersey.  He was educated in the public schools and became a grammar school teacher between 1844 and 1848.  He also studied medicine while working as an assistant to white doctors. After being denied admission to medical school because of his race, Rock pursued dentistry and opened a dental practice in Philadelphia. Although he was not afforded the necessary opportunities, he remained diligent in becoming a physician. Through perseverance, he was admitted to the American Medical College and graduated with a medical degree in 1852.

Dr. Rock moved to Boston where he established a successful practice that often offered free services to escaping enslaved persons. As a prolific orator, he lectured on the abolition of slavery as well as suffrage for Blacks. In 1858 he delivered a powerful speech titled, “Whenever the Colored Man is Elevated, It Will Be by His Own Exertions”. Rock’s analysis of racism and pride in his African ancestry was profound.  In fact some scholars believe his proclamation of “Black pride” became a central part of the Black Power movement a century later. This speech asserts the courage of Blacks to fight for freedom and that “Black is beautiful”.  He also protested and challenged the 1857 Dred Scott Decision in this monumental speech.

After health issues forced him to give up his medical practice in 1859, he decided to pursue a career as a lawyer.  In 1861 he became one of the first African Americans admitted to the Massachusetts Bar and was appointed Justice of the Peace for Suffolk County. Through the conflict of the Civil War, Rock remained relentless in advocating for the abolition of slavery. Additionally, he was a major recruiter for the Black volunteer regiments from Massachusetts.

In 1865, Rock became the first African American to be accorded the privilege of pleading before the Supreme Court.  Rock’s presence was approved by Salmon P. Chase, who replaced Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, author of the Dred Scott decision. Still in poor health, Rock became ill during the Washington ceremonies and never recovered.  His health continued to deteriorate until his passing in 1866.

This abolitionist, teacher, dentist, physician, and lawyer was a brilliant combination of intellectual power, professional success, and political action.  As we observe the remarkable heroism of those in the medical profession during this pandemic, let us not forget the trailblazers that proceeded them. I know many African Americans in the medical field and they are often called to be more than their occupation. Like Rock, they are needed to be examples of social uplift and ethical leadership for the discounted and disenfranchised.

Christopher Miller

Senior Director of Education & Community Engagement
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

Keeping our History Healthy: Susie King Taylor

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Freedom Center Voices

Keeping our History Healthy: Susie King Taylor

As March and Women’s History Month comes to a close, I thought I would write about a woman that even if you have heard of her, you might not realize all that she accomplished. Especially, in a time where women had few rights and African Americans had no rights in America. The woman, Susie King Taylor, was so accomplished that she wrote her own memoirs in a time where reading and writing could mean being severely punished. This woman became a school teacher and nurse, but wait until you read about her nursing abilities. I will start at her beginning, by telling of her childhood and her grandmother who played an important part shaping the woman Susie would become.

Susie was born August 5, 1848, the oldest of nine children to Hagar Ann Reed and Raymond Baker in Liberty County Georgia. She was deemed property, as she was born on the Grest Plantation. Even though she and her family were enslaved, the Grest seemed to not follow the norm of being cruel owners. At the age of seven, Susie and one of her brothers were allowed to live with her grandmother who was a free woman in Savanah, Georgia. Now, this is where the story gets interesting. Her grandmother, Dolly Reed, was an entrepreneur in her own right. She worked for herself as a laundress, cleaning lady and every three months would travel to visit her daughter on the Grest Plantation. She didn’t come alone--she would bring bacon, flour, sugar and other products to sell on her journey. When ready to depart, she returned with chickens and eggs to sell at home. Grandma Dolly was also a healer, meaning she would go into the woods and pick plants, roots and tree bark to make medicine, and she taught this tradition to Susie.

One thing Susie’s grandmother lacked was the ability to read and write. Grandma Dolly knew how important it was to learn. So, when Susie and her brother came to live with her, she sent them to school.  This wasn’t a school like we know today. No, this school was hidden in plain sight. The school was at the home of Mrs. Woodhouse, and she taught any kid in the neighborhood that wanted to learn. The kids wrapped their books in paper so that everyone who didn’t know would think Mrs. Woodhouse was only teaching the children the proper way to work as domestic help. After Mrs. Woodhouse taught Susie everything she knew, Grandma Dolly found two other teachers for Susie, both white students who agreed to teach Susie as long as their parents didn’t find out.

April 1862 brought the Civil War, with South Carolina being the first state to secede. Once Union troops captured Fort Pulaski, enslaved African Americans began to escape to freedom.  Susie’s uncle was among the ones looking to take his family, Susie went along.  Let me just state without going into a lot of detail, her escape wasn’t pleasant. They had a lot of obstacles to cross before finally reaching St. Catherine Island, then leaving by boat to their destination, St. Simon’s Island. While aboard ship, she met Captain Whitmore. Talking with him revealed her ability to read and write, she felt she could trust him with her secret. Once they reached the Island, Captain Whitmore revealed her abilities and this led to Susie becoming a teacher.  She taught over 40 children by day and a number of adults by night that wanted to learn.

The next big change that came in Susie’s life was the construction of the first black regiment. The First South Carolina Volunteers was formed on November 7th 1862 under the leadership of white Commander Colonel Thomas Wentworth Hissinson. The reason I mention ‘volunteers’ in the name is because even though they fought and laid down their lives for freedom, none of them were paid a wage because of the color of their skin. Commander Hissinson fought for them to get paid, but his words and writing fell on deaf ears and payment for their service was never received. The regiment name was later changed to 33rd United States Colored Infantry Regiment.

The war brought another killer into the camps besides fighting. It came here by way of England over 100 years earlier. There was a way to get rid of this killer, but people became afraid of the cure. The killer was a virus called Smallpox. Even though there was a vaccination for smallpox, most states outlawed the vaccination for fear the vaccine itself would spread the virus. Because of this action, the virus was allowed to spread. The outbreak spread in the camps since almost all of the troops had never been vaccinated. Smallpox caused skin lesions that left deep scars. It also caused fever, vomiting and often death. Many, many people died from smallpox.

There was an outbreak of smallpox in Susie’s regiment, which led her to become a nurse. This is also where her “healer” abilities came in. One of the important plants that her Grandma Dolly taught her to use as medicine was sassafras. It was used to purify the blood and reduce joint inflammation. Susie wasn’t afraid of smallpox because she remembered this lesson. She brewed and drank a lot of sassafras tea on a regular basis, believing that purifying the blood would prevent her from catching this virus. She treated the men and never sickened with smallpox.

As a nurse in South Carolina, Susie also met and worked beside Clara Barton, who later became the founder of the American Red Cross. The 33rd Colored Infantry regiment is also where she met and married Sergeant Edward King. Together they served until they were no longer needed in 1866 and later had a son. After the war, she and Edward moved back to Savannah where she open up a private school. Unfortunately, Edward died soon after and public schools opened in her area. Her private school venture failed and Susie had to find work as a domestic servant.  She eventually moved to Boston in 1872, where she met and married Russell Taylor. She spent the rest of her life working at Woman’s Relief Corps, a national organization for female Civil War veterans.

Mrs. Susie King Taylor was a teacher, nurse, wife and mother who had a remarkable life. She lived in a period where women were treated as second class citizens, and African American women treated even worse. Through all the pain suffered, Susie persevered.

Just as Susie battled smallpox, today our doctors and nurses are facing another deadly virus. As we go through this crisis together, let us not forget the many women and men who stand in the face of danger, many without proper protection, to help those who are suffering today from COVID-19. As we sit at home, upset because our lives have changed, think about those now who have placed their lives in danger and let us all persevere together.

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Novella Nimmo

Education Coordinator
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

Photo: Susie King Taylor

Statement on the Passing of Judge Nathaniel Jones

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Freedom Center Voices

Statement on the Passing of Judge Nathaniel Jones

We are deeply saddened by the passing of Judge Nathaniel Jones. Judge Jones has been a champion and advocate of The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center since it’s opening in 2004 but his dedication to equality and inclusive freedom have been his life’s work. He has been a transformational figure in this community, nationally and internationally. His work in helping draft the South African constitution and ensuring the nation’s first free and fair elections as it emerged from Apartheid rule are remarkable. He lived a life of unbounded courage and integrity fighting for others.

While his family, friends and community will feel his loss, the world also shines brighter because of the life he lived. His legacy continues to fan the flame of freedom and we will honor him in the work we continue to do. The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center will forever be in his debt.

Union Baptist Cemetery: Vandalized Sacred Grounds

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Freedom Center Voices

Union Baptist Cemetery: Vandalized Sacred Grounds

The city of Cincinnati in the free state of Ohio, located in the Northwest Territory bordered Virginia and Kentucky on the south, Indiana on the west and Michigan on the north.  Two hundred and fifty miles to the north, Canada offered physical freedom to people of African descent who were in flight from enslavement.  Cincinnati, America’s 6th largest city in the early 1800’s geographically appeared to offer an ideal location to Black people seeking to start building new, free lives.  However, the dark legacy of race would follow them to church where they were required to sit in the rear of the sanctuary and submit to many of the racist social policies of the South from which they had fled.

In July 1831, 14 Black worshippers left the Enon Baptist Church and formed the African Union Baptist Church which would become known as the Freedom Church.  There was no place of respectful burial, interment for Blacks within the city limits.  Black people were buried in unmarked graves in the Potters’ Field and in shallow graves along the often-flooded Mill Creek that emptied into the Ohio River sweeping the remains of Black people to the South from which they had fled.

In 1865 the leaders of the Union Baptist Church found and purchased 16 acres of dry ground 5 miles west and 300 feet above the then-city limits and neighborhoods in which most of Black Cincinnati lived.  Construction workers, stevedores and day laborers from the Cincinnati waterfront, domestics, and wash women lie among butlers, chauffeurs, and the men who labored in the killing grounds of America’s largest stock yards in the 1800’s.

First Sargent Powhatan Beatty, a member of the Black Brigade, the first African American military unit composed of 700 volunteers who crossed the Ohio River at Cincinnati’s Walnut Street unarmed in 1862 and built many of the rifle pits and forts in Kentucky that protected Cincinnati from Confederate troops who defeated White Union troops at Richmond, Kentucky is interred at Union along with 50 of his companions.  Sargent Beatty would receive a Congressional Medal of Honor for leading Black troops at Chapin’s Farm in Virginia as they moved south from Petersburg to Richmond.  Peter Fossett, who was enslaved at Monticello, and who after his family purchased his freedom, became a leading caterer in Cincinnati is buried there.  Jennie D. Porter, the first Black woman to receive a PhD from the University of Cincinnati and Sarah Fossett who led the campaign to build the Colored Orphanage in the 1830’s are reflective of the little-known rich cross-section of Cincinnati’s Black antebellum population.

Time and vandals have attacked the quiet place of memory and burial of those often-denied full citizenship in Cincinnati, Ohio during their lives.  The request for funding for the restoration of the Union Baptist Cemetery will honor and memorialize the rich and diverse history of all of Cincinnati’s citizens.  The Union Baptist Church and its Cemetery, for the last 188 years have given religious, cultural and historical guidance to the African American community in Cincinnati.  The cemetery was the first place where people of African descent could, and to this day, is one of the few places in this region, that continues to preserve the historic and cultural legacy of 40% of Cincinnati’s population.

Carl B. Westmoreland

Senior Historian, National Underground Railroad Freedom Center
Trustee Emeritus, National Trust for Historic Preservation