Mother Mathilda Beasley, O.S.F.: Georgia’s First Black Nun

This Hidden History was created by SCAD student Ellie Jung as part of her SCAD art history department coursework with guidance from art history professor Holly Goldstein, Ph.D., 2018.

The Mother Mathilda Beasley, O.S.F.: Georgia’s First Black Nun historical marker was dedicated in 1988. View the Mother Mathilda Beasley, O.S.F.: Georgia’s First Black Nun historical marker listing.

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

2. Mathilda Beasley’s Baptismal Record. Mother Mathilda Beasley Cottage, interpretative panel, Baptismal Record, visited May 8th, 2018, photo taken by Ellie Jung. Image Courtesy of the Archdiocese of New Orleans.
Translation from French to English: “No. 1497 Matilde, slave of Mr. J. Taylor. The 19th of March, 1833, I the undersigned have baptized Mathilde, born the 14th of November, 1832, daughter of Carolinne, slave of Mr. James C. Tallor. She has as godfather Leon Alard and as godmother, Annette Bonne. In faith of Louise Cathedral in New Orleans, which, I have signed A. Mascaroni.”

3. This unidentified woman (Walter Charlton Hartridge, Jr. Collection, MS 1349, Georgia Historical Society, Savannah, Georgia) is thought to be Mother Mathilda Beasley based on records that describe of her ethnicity.

4. Mother Mathilda Beasley Cottage, interpretative panel, Life as a Young Girl in New Orleans, visited May 8th, 2018, photo taken by Ellie Jung.

5. United States 1860 Cenus, Mother Mathilda Beasley Cottage, interpretative panel, Life In Savannah, visited May 8th, 2018, photo taken by Ellie Jung. Photo courtesy of Savannah District 1, Chatham, Georgia: Roll: M653_115; Page: 35; Family History Library Film: 803115.

6. Marriage record from the Chatham County, Georgia registrar of marriages. Mother Mathilda Beasley Cottage, interpretative panel, Life In Savannah, visited May 8th, 2018, photo taken by Ellie Jung.

7. Beasley née Taylor signing off on a restaurant advertisement. Mother Mathilda Beasley Cottage, interpretative panel, Restaurant Work, visited May 8th, 2018, photo taken by Ellie Jung.

8. Beasley née Taylor signing off on a restaurant advertisement. Mother Mathilda Beasley Cottage, interpretative panel, Restaurant Work, visited May 8th, 2018, photo taken by Ellie Jung.

9. Signature from a letter penned by Beasley on July 3, 1893, followed by O.S.F (Order of Saint Francis) indicating her entry into the church as a nun. Mathilda Beasley Cottage, interpretative panel, Life as a Young Girl in New Orleans, visited May 8th, 2018, photo taken by Ellie Jung. Photo courtesy of the Archives of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament.

10. Mother Mathilda Beasley, O.S.F Women of Vision Plaque in SCAD’s Arnold Hall Auditorium. Photo taken by Ellie Jung.

11. Mother Mathilda Beasley, O.S.F Women of Vision Plaque in SCAD’s Arnold Hall entryway. Photo taken by Ellie Jung.

12. The Mother Mathilda Beasley GHS marker located outside of Sacred Heart Church showing the newly opened Susie King Taylor School in the background. Photo taken by Ellie Jung.

13. The Mother Mathilda Beasley GHS marker located outside of Sacred Heart Church on Bull Street in Savannah, GA. Photo taken by Ellie Jung.

14. A collaborative art project made with students from the Susie King Taylor School.

15. The Mother Mathilda Beasley Cottage located on East Broad Street in Savannah, Georgia. Visited May 8th, 2018. Photo taken by Ellie Jung.

16. Ellie Jung, Creative Component: Promotional Flyer for Museum, 2018.

The following essay is by SCAD student Ellie Jung, 2018.

Advocating Education: The Legacy of Mother Mathilda Beasley, O.S.F

I have lived just blocks away from the Mother Mathilda Beasley, O.F.S marker for two years now. As an aspiring museum education curator, I found myself connected to Beasley and her passion for helping others (Fig. 16). Her perseverance to provide the black youth of Savannah with opportunities that were by and large denied to them is a poignant reminder of how one person can make a profound change within a community.

Introduction

In New Orleans, Louisiana on November 14th in 1832, Mathilde (later spelled and recorded as “Mathilda”) Taylor (later Beasley) was born (fig. 1). Her mother, Carolinne, was an enslaved woman owned by James C. Taylor. Very few records exist of Beasley’s life before arriving in Savannah in 1860, however her baptism at the St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans was recorded (fig. 2)[i]. Beasley’s early introduction into Catholicism serves as a poignant prediction for what she would achieve later on in life when she became Georgia’s first black nun.

It is unsure who Beasley’s father was, however her 1903 obituaries listed her as French-Indian (fig. 3). Other information that was gathered from these obituaries about Beasley’s early life include that her father was Native American, and that she was orphaned as a child.[ii] Beasley demonstrated her lifetime empathy for displaced children when she founded an orphanage in 1886. While it is unclear who had a hand in raising Beasley, it can be discerned that whether freed or enslaved she was given an education due to her ability to read and write.[iii] Given that Catholicism was the dominant religion in New Orleans during her childhood, it is probable that Beasley may have been taken in by a nunnery such as the Sisters of the Holy Family, which operated out of New Orleans (fig. 4).[iv] The aforementioned group’s mission included educating and helping poor children, including those who were enslaved.[v] The goal of the group closely parallels Beasley’s goal of helping orphaned children of color in Savannah.

Arrival in Savannah

It is uncertain how Beasley traveled to Savannah, Georgia, but records indicated her arrival to be sometime during the 1850s.[vi] Likewise, by the time she arrived, she was no longer enslaved and the explanation as to why and how has yet to be demystified. The United States Census of 1860 lists Mathilda Taylor as a “colored” seamstress (fig. 5). A marriage registrar notes her that marriage to Abraham Beasley took place on February 9th, 1869 (fig. 6). Record of Mathilda Beasley’s conditional baptism in Savannah also exists. Despite knowledge that Beasley was baptized at her birth, these records may not have made the journey with her during her travels to Savannah. As such, it became necessary for a conditional baptism to be performed in order for the marriage to be blessed in a church.

Beasley’s marriage to a wealthy and freed person of color opened entrepreneurial opportunities for her.  Before their marriage, Beasley helped Abraham Beasley operate a restaurant in Johnson Square from 1863-1865 (fig. 7, 8).[vii] Her name signed off newspaper advertisements for the business, further attesting to her ability to read and write. Abraham passed away in 1877 and left his estate, which included property holdings on Skidaway Island, Isle of Hope, and inside of the Savannah city limits, to Mathilda Beasley.[viii]

Work with the Church

After her husband’s passing, Beasley re-invested herself in her Catholic faith. In 1884, a group of Franciscan nuns known as Poor Clare Sisters visited Savannah. Traveling with the group was a Sister from the Order of Saint Francis in York, England. Records indicate that Beasley traveled to York from May-July 1885, and it is assumed that during her time abroad she received the training and education to become a nun. Upon her return to Savannah in 1886, Beasley was referred to as Mother Mathilda (fig. 9). Mother Mathilda Beasley is now recognized as Georgia’s first black nun.

Mother Mathilda showed her dedication to the church when she donated her estate to the Sacred Heart Catholic Church of Savannah. She did so because she desired to establish an orphanage that would provide education and aid poor children of color. During her early years in Savannah, records link her to the secret schools that educated enslaved children.[ix]  When the St. Francis Home for Colored Orphans was established, Mother Mathilda directed the orphanage from 1887 to 1891, allowing her to teach children of color without the fear of prosecution.

Legacy

Today Mother Mathilda Beasley is remembered fondly as a pioneering educator. Mother Mathilda was recognized as a Georgia Woman of Achievement[x] in 2004, and inducted to the Savannah Women of Vision (fig. 10, 11)[xi] By the Savannah College of Art and Design in 2016.  On Bull Street, near the building that houses her honoree plaque and next to the historical marker that describes her life and legacy, a new charter school recently opened that continues Mother Mathilda’s legacy (fig. 12, 13). The Susie King Taylor School opened its doors in 2017 and endeavors to provide an “academically challenging learning community” to children of Savannah (fig. 14).[xii] On East Broad Street, next to the elementary school, a park in Mother Mathilda Beasley’s name was established in 1982. The park speaks positively to the changing nature of Savannah—it used to exist as a junkyard, and now provides a leisure space for children of the community. Mother Mathilda’s cottage, originally located about a mile south in the Thomas Square Streetcar District, has been relocated to the park and operates as a museum to educate the public about the role she had in shaping Savannah (fig. 14).

[i] Mother Mathilda Beasley Cottage, interpretative panel, Born In New Orleans, visited May 8th, 2018.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Mother Mathilda Beasley Cottage, interpretative panel, Life as a Young Girl in New Orleans, visited May 8th, 2018.

[iv] “Home,” Sisters of the Holy Family, accessed May 13, 2018, http://www.sistersoftheholyfamily.com/.

[v] “About,” Who We Are & History, Sisters of the Holy Family, accessed May 13, 2018, http://www.sistersoftheholyfamily.com/who-we-are-history/.

[vi] “From Slavery to Savannah,” Mother Mathilda Beasley, accessed May 4, 2018, https://georgiahistory.com/education-outreach/online-exhibits/featured-historical-figures/mother-mathilda-beasley/from-slavery-to-savannah/.

[vii] Mother Mathilda Beasley Cottage, interpretative panel, Restaurant Work, visited May 8th, 2018.

[viii] Mother Mathilda Beasley Cottage, educational adjunct, visited May 8th, 2018.

[ix] “Educator of Slave Children,” Mother Mathilda Beasley, accessed May 4, 2018, https://georgiahistory.com/education-outreach/online-exhibits/featured-historical-figures/mother-mathilda-beasley/educator-of-slave-children/.

[x] “Mother Mathilda Beasley,” Georgia Women of Achievement, accessed May 13, 2018, https://www.georgiawomen.org/copy-of-carson-mccullers-8/.

[xi] “Savannah Women of Vision: Recognition Ceremony,” Savannah College of Art and Design, accessed May 13, 2018, https://www.scad.edu/event/2016-02-12-savannah-women-vision-recognition-ceremony/.

[xii] “Our Mission,” Susie King Taylor Community School, accessed May 13, 2018, https://www.sktcs.org/.

Chatham County Parks Department. “Mother Mathilda Beasley.” Parks & Recreation. Accessed May 6th, 2018. http://parks.chathamcounty.org/Parks/Neighborhood-Parks/Mother-Mathilda-Beasley/.

Georgia Historical Society. “Mother Mathilda Beasley.” Accessed May 1st, 2018. https://georgiahistory.com/education-outreach/online-exhibits/featured-historical-figures/mother-mathilda-beasley/.

Georgia Historical Society. “Mother Mathilda Beasley, O.S.F.: Georgia’s First Black Nun.” Historical Markers. Accessed April 9th, 2018. https://georgiahistory.com/ghmi_marker_updated/mathilda-beasley/.

Georgia Women of Achievement. “Mathilda Taylor Beasley,” http://www.georgiawomen.org/_honorees/beasleym/beasley.pdf/.

Lebos, Jessica Leigh. “What Would Mother Mathilda Do?” Connect Savannah. Published December 13th, 2017. Accessed May 1st, 2018. https://www.connectsavannah.com/savannah/what-would-mother-mathilda-do/Content?oid=6549796/.

Mitchell, Tia. “Mother Mathilda Beasley: The mystery of Georgia’s first black nun.” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Published February 18th, 2018. Accessed May 1st, 2018. https://www.myajc.com/lifestyles/mother-mathilda-beasley-the-mystery-georgia-first-black-nun/a1LGqlMoakEB2PjIiB5ONO/.

Migone, Pablo. “A Nun and a Writer: Catholic Savannah Women Honored.” Labyrinthine Mind. Published February 12th, 2016. Accessed May 13th, 2018. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/labmind/2016/02/a-nun-and-a-writer-catholic-savannah-women-honored.html/.

Savannah College of Art and Design. “Savannah Women of Vision: Recognition Ceremony.” Published February 2016. Accessed May 13, 2018, https://www.scad.edu/event/2016-02-12-savannah-women-vision-recognition-ceremony/.

The Savannah Tribune. “Mother Mathilda Beasley House Project.” Published on July 13th, 2013. Accessed May 8th, 2018. http://www.savannahtribune.com/articles/mother-mathilda-beasley-house-project/.

Sisters of the Holy Family. Accessed May 13, 2018. http://www.sistersoftheholyfamily.com/.

Susie King Taylor Community School. “Our Mission.” Accessed May 13, 2018. https://www.sktcs.org/.

Ware, Gabrielle. “Forgotten Women Part 10: Mother Mathilda Beasley.” Georgia Public Broadcasting. Published December 11th, 2015. Accessed May 1st, 2018. http://www.gpb.org/news/2015/12/11/forgotten-women-part-10-mother-mathilda-beasley/.

Wells-Bacon, Mary. “The Life of Mathilda Beasley.” Accessed May 11th, 2018. http://library.armstrong.edu/Beasley_Mathilda.pdf/.

Withun, David. “Beasley, Mother Mathilda (1832-1903).” The Black Past: Remembered and Reclaimed. Accessed May 6th, 2018. http://www.blackpast.org/aah/beasley-mother-mathilda-1832-1903/.

WTOC-TV. “New park named after Mother Mathilda Beasley opens.” Published 2012. Accessed May 13th, 2018. http://www.wtoc.com/story/19170101/new-park-named-after-mother-matilda-opens/.