Walk through downtown Savannah, and it won’t take long before you reach one of the city’s iconic public squares.
After all, there are nearly two dozen of these scenic miniature parks spread throughout the cobblestone streets of Georgia’s oldest city.
And yet, of Savannah’s many squares — 23, to be exact — none is named after a person of color or a woman.
Enter Susie King Taylor: a Black nurse, teacher, veteran and author who served with the Union during the Civil War — and whose name is now a front-runner to adorn the square formerly called Calhoun Square.
That now-nameless square, situated at Abercorn and East Wayne Streets, presents an opportunity for history to be made — and Rozz Rouse is intent on seeing that it is.
The Savannah activist spoke with GPB’s Benjamin Payne at the very square that may soon become Taylor Square:
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Benjamin Payne: You used to call your group the Coalition to Rename Calhoun Square. But now that the Savannah City Council has removed the Calhoun Square name, I notice you’ve begun referring to your group as the Coalition to Name Taylor Square. And, of course, that refers to Susie King Taylor. Tell me about who Susie King Taylor was, what she did and what she stood for.
Rozz Rouse: Susie King Taylor was a native of Liberty County, around 35 miles from Savannah. But she came to Savannah around age 7. Her grandmother, Dolly Reed — who already lived here in Savannah — wanted her granddaughter to have an education.
But of course, African-Americans — enslaved people — were not allowed to have an education. So, she had it set up where her granddaughter could be educated and learn how to read and write. They called them bucket schools or secret schools. What they would do was wrap the books and all the materials and put them into buckets, as if they were going to do some type of domestic work. She learned how to read and write around age 7 here in Savannah. So, this was like her beloved second home.
As a young teenaged girl, she — along with her family members, uncles and cousins — went to South Carolina. She was part of the Union under the Civil War, around 1862. She helped to take care of the sick and dying soldiers. She taught the soldiers how to read and write. So, she’s like a local heroine. I want the world to know who she was. She made her mark, not just as a Union soldier nurse — also a teacher, she worked as a laundress, she worked as a cook. She served her country well, and she was very proud. Also, she was one of the only African-American enslaved women that wrote her diary in a memoir, and she titled it Reminiscences of My Life in Camp.
Benjamin Payne: And tell me about that memoir, because that’s pretty significant, considering that many Black women in that day and age were not educated, didn’t have access to publishing. And so what was the larger significance of her being able to get her story out there?
Rozz Rouse: She wanted to be remembered in such a positive way, not just as an African-American woman being born into slavery on the Grest Plantation. She was born into slavery, but never enslaved in her mind. So, just to have the wherewithal to keep those memoirs written in her mind, but also paper it — that took a lot of strength. She wanted us to remember who she was, how she served her country, the United States of America. It’s as if we were given the task to remember her, as if to say, “Don’t forget about me, Susie Baker King Taylor. I made my mark. I did the work.”
Benjamin Payne: Martin Luther King Jr. visited Savannah in 1964, and he called it the most desegregated city south of the Mason-Dixon Line. I bring this up because Savannah is often seen as being a fairly progressive city. And yet, of the 22 public squares that we have in downtown Savannah today, city leaders have never named a single one of them after a person of color or after a woman. Why do you think that is?
Rozz Rouse: We helped build this city. This was one of the third ports of entry for the transatlantic slave trade that started in 1748 here. It’s as if they don’t want to recognize. We have no markers here in Savannah at all. There’s not a square named after an African-American male or female. And it’s just time. It’s past time. So, I think the fact that nobody ever thought about it, really, they didn’t care, as if to redact the history from Savannah, knowing the atrocity of slavery was here for over 116 years, and they just ignored. But it’s up to us to bring it to the forefront. So, why not have squares named after African Americans that contribute to this beautiful city of Savannah?
Benjamin Payne: If Susie King Taylor was with us right now, as we sit here on this bench at a public square that may soon be named after her, what do you think she would say?
Rozz Rouse: I think in her words, she would say, “Thank you, my beloved second home Savannah. I made my mark. I served my country as a nurse. I served my country taking care of the sick and dying Union soldiers, making sure that their wounds were healed. I taught the children during the day when I became free. I taught the adults at night. I would be honored and I am so proud to know that I have not been forgotten. I was born in 1848, August 6th — 174 years ago. And you all are calling my name? Susie Baker King Taylor? Thank you, all, for considering that name: Taylor Square.”
This story comes to The Current GA through a reporting partnership with GPB News, a non-profit newsroom covering the state of Georgia.