March marks Women’s History Month, and today I wanted to share with you the story of one of my favourite women in the history of Savannah, that of Mother Mathilda Beasley. I had the pleasure of learning more about her whilst researching for Art & Amble’s pop-up Women of Savannah tour.
Mother Mathilda was Georgia’s first African American nun – she wasn’t even baptised until she was in her mid-thirties.
She was baptised in the Cathedral in Savannah – unfortunately not the Cathedral there now. Due to a fire in the late nineteenth century, the current St John the Baptist Cathedral is newer, but it was on that same site. She had a huge impact on the city of Savannah and left behind an incredible legacy.
In the beginning…
There is a lack of source material concerning Mathilda’s early years, but we know she was born in 1832 in New Orleans, to Caroline, who was enslaved by a man named James C. Taylor. Mathilda made her way to Savannah by the 1850s and we do not know how or why, but she had gained her freedom by the time she arrived in the city.
The 1860 census in Savannah listed 705 free Black people in the city. They could enter trade and earn a living but were forced to wear badges, and had to have a white guardian, amongst other restrictions. Women often worked in the same professions as poor white women, which would often be as seamstresses, domestics, washer women and cooks. Mathilda was listed in this Savannah census as Mathilda Taylor and working as a seamstress-dressmaker.
Mathilda the teacher
Mathilda ran a secret school for a decade for African American children in Savannah. Education had been outlawed for them in the early nineteenth century. Both Black and white teachers were forbidden from educating Black children: the punishment differed for each, with white teachers facing a higher fine, but Black teachers facing public lashings as well as fines.
However, such schools were an open secret and during this time there were six or seven in operation in Savannah that taught a variety of subjects. Students would walk roundabout routes to the building, wrap up their books in newspapers and know potential hiding places within the buildings to try and hide their attendance.
On top of her work as a seamstress and a teacher, Mathilda also worked in a restaurant owned by a wealthy free Black man named Abraham Beasley. Remember her full name? You can see where this is going – Abraham and Mathilda married in February 1869.
This was just after Mathilda was baptised Catholic, so maybe her baptism was in preparation for her marriage. Either way, it set her on the path to her vocation.
Just eight years later, Abraham left Mathilda a widow.
He left all of his wealth to her, and this inheritance gave her the ability and liberation to follow exactly what she wanted to do: she donated everything to the Roman Catholic Church, which included a specification that some of it should be put towards a home for African American orphans.
It has been suggested that one of the reasons why she chose to donate her considerable wealth was because her husband had made some money in the slave trade, and she wished to atone for this.
Mathilda’s faith became a crucial part of her life when she became a widow, more so than ever. She travelled to England, where she trained to become a nun in the city of York (perhaps my most favourite city in England!).
Serving the community
In the years following her return to Savannah, she established an orphanage for African American children and formed the first community of African American nuns in Georgia. She continued her work with the orphanage for the rest of her life, as well as taking in seamstress work, the profits of which she gave to those in need.
When she passed away at the end of 1903, her funeral was standing room only and in recognition of the way she had dedicated her life to serving the people in her community, it was attended by people from all walks of life.
Georgia Historical Society has a whole section on their website about Mother Mathilda. In 2004, she was named a Georgia Woman of Achievement, so there is more information on that here. On both websites, you can see a photo of her – I couldn’t find one I was sure was in the public domain, hence why her photo is a blurry one from the Historical Society building in my blog post!
There is a Historical Marker showing where she lived near the Sacred Heart Church in Savannah – you can find the text from that (it was put up in 1988) here.