Before Rosa Parks: Susie King Taylor

The title “Before Rosa Parks” loosely links a number of lessons that address African-American women who were active in the fight for civil and human rights before the 1950s. This lesson highlights Susie King Taylor, the only black woman who wrote a narrative about her experiences working with soldiers during the Civil War.
Grade Level


At the end of the lesson, students will be able to: 

  • understand excerpts from an autobiographical work and retell scenes from the book. 
  • collaborate to convert segments of the text into dialogue, creating a brief play about Susie King Taylor's involvement in the Civil War.
Essential Questions
  • Who was Susie King Taylor and why is she important? 
  • How unusual was Susie King Taylor’s achievement?
  • Enduring Understandings:
    • Susie King Taylor, who was born a slave in the U.S. south in 1848, wrote a very valuable document—an autobiography of her experiences caring for injured and sick Union soldiers during the U.S. Civil War.  
    • While many black women provided food and shelter to Union soldiers, and some endangered their lives to do so, only Taylor's story remains.


  • commissary [kom-uh-ser-ee] (noun)  a store, often attached to a larger institution, that sells food and supplies  
  • custard [kuhs-terd] (noun) a pudding-like dessert made of eggs, milk, and sugar 
  • devotions [dih-voh-shuhns] (noun) prayer 
  • furlough [fur-loh] (noun) a period of time off from duty granted to a member of the military  
  • rebel (reb-uhl) (noun) a person who uses force to oppose a government or ruler 
  • regiment [reg-uh-muhnt] (noun) a military unit of ground forces including two or more groups of soldiers


Suggested Procedure

1.  Explain to students that they will be reading part of the autobiography Susie King Taylor, a girl who was born into slavery but later helped the Union army win the Civil War.  Further tell students that they will go on to write a play about Taylor. Write on the board words from the lesson that students might not be familiar with: rebel, custard, regiment, commissary, furlough, devotions. If possible, display a map of Charleston as you ask what students know about the Civil War. 

2. Read the summary of Taylor's life from the handout to the class, or ask students to read it aloud. Assign students to groups of four or five, and give each group a segment of Taylor's autobiography to read online. Have students read aloud to one another, then discuss the individuals and events portrayed. Ask: How does Taylor display character traits such as courage, creativity, compassion, and determination? 

3. Assign each group to write a short scene about their excerpt, by converting parts of the text into dialogue. If time permits, allow students to perform their sections in sequence for the whole class.

Common Core State Standards: R.1, R.3, W.3, W.4, SL.1


Extension Activity

Have students write a “First, next, then and finally” summary—putting into context the events relayed in the excerpts. Example: First, Taylor was a slave. Next, the Civil War began and she helped the Union fight for her freedom. Then, the U.S. Army decided to pay black soldiers equally. Finally, the “rebels” retreated, and Taylor helped put out the fire in Charleston at the war's end.

Invite students to perform their play for the school and/or community to spread the word about Taylor’s story.