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Sherrie Tolliver speaks Friday at Chautauqua

BONNE TERRE –  A woman who was the only African American woman to write about her Civil War experiences stopped in Bonne Terre Friday night to talk about her time with the Union Army and life after the war.

Susie King Taylor was born a slave in Georgia in 1848. Her mother was owned by a white family who didn’t mistreat them. The wife doted on Susie. At the age of 7, Susie was allowed to move to Savannah to live with her grandmother who was free.

While it was against the law, Susie was able to learn in secret how to read and write from various teachers including a dear friend who was going to convent school.

Susie, portrayed by Sherrie Tolliver at the Big River Chautauqua Friday night, spoke of being frightened of the constant shellings and firing of guns when the war began in 1861. She began hearing about Yankees and couldn’t wait to meet one of them.

After the Yankees got control of Savannah, she ended up at St. Simons Island where Union officers questioned her about her literacy and sewing skills. They were impressed and surprised she knew how to read and write.

After talking with the officers, Susie, just 14 years old, agreed to start up a little school for the colored people. During the day, she had 40 pupils. At night, the adults would come and they were eager to learn.

While at the school, she married Edward King.

Soon Col. Charles Trowbridge announced he was going to start recruiting colored troops for the 1st South Carolina Infantry Volunteers which was later renamed the 33rd Regiment, U.S. Colored Troops.

Susie said the men wanted to fight for their own freedom. They knew what they were fighting for.

She said the men hated their first uniforms which were red. They complained the rebels could see them from miles away. The uniforms were scrapped and the men were given blue uniforms.

Susie designed a uniform for the women, modeled similar to a nun’s attire.

She said when the men found out they were going to paid half the pay of white men, they decided they’d rather be paid nothing than half pay.

While she was enrolled as laundress, she said she had little time to do that. She served as the regiment’s nurse. Her husband fought in the war. She saw horrible things like skulls and corpses so often that she became accustomed to it.

Susie talked about how the Confederates would hide in the bushes and attack. She talked about the food rations being low and the women sometimes being alone at night, too afraid to sleep. She talked about white women spitting on black soldiers who were trying to save Charleston from the fire the Confederates had set.

She wasn’t afraid of Small Pox and she made sure the men afflicted with it were comfortable. She said she knew all she had to do was drink sassafras tea to keep her blood pure. 

Once the War was over, they thought everyone would be treated equally.

Unfortunately, that was not the case. Susie said there was a huge resentment in the South at those who fought for the Union cause. These Union soldiers were not given good jobs.

Her husband died in 1866 while he was working on the docks. He died a few months before the birth of their son.

Susie opened a school where she charged $1 a month. She soon lost her living when free schools were opened.

In 1868, she became a maid for a wealthy family. She eventually moved to Boston where she finally for the first time saw her people being treated equally.

She married Russell Taylor who was doing well enough that for the first time she didn’t have to work.

Later on, Susie’s son became a traveling actor. He became ill while in Shreveport, La. She traveled there and tried to bring him home. She said she was abused on the train and saw people lynched because of their color.

“I had to bury my child (in Shreveport) because I was not allowed to bring my sick child home on a train,” she said.

She said instead of things getting better in the South, it had reverted back to the way it was. She said people were being killed for any little reason.

“I thought the war would end all that,” she said.

Susie wasn’t bitter. She said she kept hope that in God’s time, the wounds would heal and it would no longer be the North and the South.

She spent the later years of her life tending to veterans’ needs and helping them get the care and pensions they deserved. Susie had noticed how little regard people – the younger generation – had for veterans.

“Let us never forget our veterans,” Susie said. “They deserve our respect and our support.”

After her second husband died in 1901, Susie wrote her memoir, “Reminisces of My Life in Camp with the 33rd United State Colored Troops…”

When it was time for Susie to answer questions from the audience, one person asked why her grandmother was free and her mother was not.

“Slavery is a very strange thing,” Susie said.

She said her grandmother worked enough to pay for her freedom but she didn’t have enough money to pay for her daughter’s freedom. When she did have the money, the master decided he didn’t want to sell her.

Tolliver, of Cleveland, Ohio, has performed at the Big River Chautauqua previously – in 2008 as Wilma Rudolph. She portrays numerous characters including Rosa Parks.

She said Marie Laveau, the New Orleans voodoo queen, is the most fun to portray. She said in a time when women and blacks didn’t have power, Laveau had power.

The character Tolliver most reveres is Harriet Tubman for her courage. Tubman risked her life over and over and never stopped helping people.

When it was Tolliver’s chance to take questions as herself, Marylee Visnovske who owns Earth Mother Health Foods in Farmington gave Tolliver a bag with a Gullah Cusisine/South Carolina T-shirt Tolliver had seen her wearing earlier that day when she ran into her at the store..

Visnovske, who has gotten to know Tolliver a little bit, gave her the shirt because Tolliver’s great grandma was from South Carolina. Tolliver has just begun researching her own family history.

On Friday, members of the Missouri Sons of the Union Veterans of the Civil War attended the event. Afterward, they posed for pictures with Tolliver.

Friday night was Parkland Health Center night at Chautauqua. Everyone received a booklet on the history of Bonne Terre Hospital and Parkland Health Center North. The books will be available at the 100th anniversary celebration from 3 to 6 p.m. Thursday at the hospital.

Teresa Ressel is a reporter for the Daily Journal and can be reached at 573-431-2010, ext. 179 or at

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