Meeting Susan Walker
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"Roundheads and Ramblings"

Meeting Susan Walker

Another member of the original "Gideon's Band" was socialite Susan Walker.  She was traveling as a companion of Rev. and Mrs. French, but her purposes could not have been more different.  In her obituary, someone described her as: "a philanthropist, politician. mathematician, abolitionist, strong-minded woman . . . of somewhat masculine appearance, with a large frame, dominated by a powerful intellect, and unusually quick sympathies." While the Frenches were fervent evangelical missionaries, Susan Walker was a Unitarian abolitionist. 

Susan was the only daughter among several sons in a prominent and well-to-do Masssachusetts family.  She had had a first-rate education and was also a world traveler.  She counted among her friends most well-known Boston abolitionists, as well as many of the leading politicians under Lincoln.  She was on first-name terms with Salmon P. Chase, Secretary of the Treasury; William H. Seward, Secretary of State;  Edwin M. Stanton, Secretary of War; Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts; and Governor John A. Andrew of Massachusetts. In fact, on this trip, she carried a special charge: to report directly to Chase on the successes and failure of the mission.

Susan had trouble from the start, finding no common ground among the other missionaries.  Her journal attempts to make light of the deprivations they found on St. Helena Island -- houses ransacked, no usable furniture, meager rations, and overcrowded living arrangements.  She had more difficulty accepting the roles assigned to her.  Could she sort the used clothing they had brought to distribute to the slaves? Of course, but many of the clothes were dirty or stained, and she found handling them distasteful. Could she take charge of the housekeeping chores?  Of course, except that she had never had to "keep house" and had no idea where to start.  Could she teach the slave children?  Of course, if only they children would behave like serious scholars in the classroom.  Could she work with the women?  Of course, if only they would quit thinking like slaves.

She would have much preferred to do some of the tasks expected of the men in their group.  She could have easily handled the business of a cotton agent or taken over the planning for land distribution, but such positions  were not open to her.  Within weeks, she was talking of going home, where she could be of more use.  The approaching hot summer made an excellent excuse, and she left on June 9, 1862, just three months after joining the effort.

Will she be important to this book? Certainly.  She represents one side of an intellectual/evangelical battle that hindered everything that the teacher-missionaries tried to do.  Fervent abolitionist though she was, her reactions to the realities of a slave-based culture reveal deep-seated and erroneous northern assumptions about the nature of the slave population.  Beyond that, she's going to make a wonderful foil for the pasionately silly Austa Fench.