From Slavery to Savannah

Matilda Beasley

Mathilda Beasley, date unknown.
From the Georgia Historical Society Collection of Photographs, 1870-1960, 1361PH-26-05-4987.

It is generally believed that Mathilde (later spelled Mathilda) Taylor’s birth date was November 14, 1832, although some sources list 1834 as the year of her birth. She was born in New Orleans. Her mother, Caroline, was a slave owned by James C. Taylor. Some historians believe that her birth father may have been Native American.

An important feature of southern life at this time was that black slaves furnished most of the labor supply both in cities and on plantations. Even though we do not know for certain whether Caroline, Mathilda’s mother, lived in the city of New Orleans or on a plantation near the city, we do know that many problems existed in a society based on slavery. There were many widespread illnesses and once a slave became too old to work, his or her life became even more difficult because the slave was no longer of value to the master.

It is speculated that Mathilda became an orphan at an early age. We do not know when this happened nor can we be certain how or why she obtained her freedom. We do know, however, that she had made her way to Savannah in the 1850s.

Before Mathilda moved to Savannah, this city had survived hurricanes, fires, yellow fever epidemics, and economic depression. But in the 1850s there were more opportunities to achieve success and acquire wealth, especially for upper-class white citizens. The port was active with shipping, and the railroad had expanded, providing links to other cities. New businesses were beginning and old businesses were doing better.

Mathilda was not the only free person of color in Savannah. The city census lists seven hundred five free Negroes in 1860. They had certain rights and privileges that slave did not have. He or she could choose a trade to enter and earn a living.  Free persons of color were, however, forced to wear a badge indicating that they were indeed free.

Bird’s Eye View of the City of Savannah, Geo. (looking North), 1855.

Bird’s Eye View of the City of Savannah, Geo. (looking North), 1855.
From the Georgia Historical Society Collection, MS 1361PR-03-10A-02.

Free persons of color who were males often worked as porters, wagoners, and house servants. Many poor white males resented the presence of these African-American workers because of the competition for jobs they represented.  Free women did much of the same work as poorer white women.  They most often worked as seamstresses, domestics, washerwomen, and cooks.

The 1860 census shows Mathilda Taylor worked as a seamstress.  The census lists her as 21 years old. The term seamstress was later changed to seamstress-dressmaker.  There was not yet a large garment industry in Savannah, but Savannah citizens wanted fine, fashionable clothing; therefore, many free black females were drawn to this work.

Her work as a seamstress was the way that Mathilda earned her living, but she worked in many other ways in her spare time.


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