Susie Baker King Taylor (1848-1912) was the first African American to teach openly in a school for former slaves in Georgia. As the author of Reminiscences of My Life in Camp with the 33d United States Colored Troops, Late 1st S.C. Volunteers, she was the only African American woman to publish a memoir of her wartime experience.
On this fourth of July weekend, I chose these excerpts from her book to express what I and many African Americans are faced with when called upon to celebrate the land of our birth in the face of so much that does not celebrate us. Many people are familiar with Frederick Douglas’ powerful speech, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” written in 1852. Ms. Taylor’s words were penned fifty years later, after seeing first hand the sacrifices the United States Colored Troops she served with made during the Civil War to end slavery. How poignantly she reflects:
…I must say a word on the general treatment of my race, both in the North and South, in this twentieth century. I wonder if our white fellow men realize the true sense or meaning of brotherhood? For two hundred years we had toiled for them; the war of 1861 came and was ended, and we thought our race was forever freed from bondage, and that the two races could live in unity with each other, but when we read almost every day of what is being done to my race by some whites in the South, I sometimes ask, “Was the war in vain? Has it brought freedom, in the full sense of the word, or has it not made our condition more hopeless?”
In this “land of the free” we are burned, tortured, and denied a fair trial, murdered for any imaginary wrong conceived in the brain of the negro-hating white man. There is no redress for us from a government which promised to protect all under its flag. It seems a mystery to me. They say, “One flag, one nation, one country indivisible.” Is this true? Can we say this truthfully, when one race is allowed to burn, hang, and inflict the most horrible torture weekly, monthly, on another? No, we cannot sing “My country, ’tis of thee, Sweet land of Liberty”! It is hollow mockery.
…I do not uphold my race when they do wrong. They ought to be punished, but the innocent are made to suffer as well as the guilty, and I hope the time will hasten when it will be stopped forever. Let us remember God says, “He that sheds blood, his blood shall be required again.” I may not live to see it, but the time is approaching when the South will again have cause to repent for the blood it has shed of innocent black men, for their blood cries out for vengeance. For the South still cherishes a hatred toward the blacks, although there are some true Southern gentlemen left who abhor the stigma brought upon them, and feel it very keenly, and I hope the day is not far distant when the two races will reside in peace in the Southland, and we will sing with sincere and truthful hearts, “My country, ‘t is of thee, Sweet land of Liberty, of thee I sing.”
…All we ask for is “equal justice,” the same that is accorded to all other races who come to this country, of their free will (not forced to, as we were), and are allowed to enjoy every privilege, unrestricted, while we are denied what is rightfully our own in a country which the labor of our forefathers helped to make what it is.
You can find her book in its entirety at this website: http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/taylorsu/taylorsu.html