Sojourner Truth Part 2: Woman of Influence

Artist’s portrait of Sojourner Truth’s meeting with Abraham Lincoln in 1864 (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)

This is the second of a two-part article on Sojourner Truth, the 19th century preacher, orator, anti-slavery, and women’s rights activist.  Born a slave in Ulster County, New York, she was never afforded the opportunity to learn to read or write. Yet, through fearless determination born of a deep Christian faith, she became one of the brightest lights in the civil-rights and women’s rights movements of the 19th century, lecturing and speaking to thousands, and meeting with some of the most influential figures of the period, including three presidents.

Laying the Groundwork

From New York City Sojourner Truth headed east: Brooklyn, Long Island, then Connecticut–Bridgeport, New Haven, Bristol and Hartford.  She attended camp meetings, organized meetings, listened to sermons, preached and shared her testimony.  She also worked when she could.  In Hartford, in 1843, she joined a group of Millerites.

In 1838 William Miller (1782-1849) published a collection of lectures entitled Evidence from Scripture and History of the Second Coming of Christ, About the Year 1843.  The volume predicted the final days of the earth, and the return of Christ, based on the Book of Daniel [1].

Miller was not an ordained minister but did have a license to preach [2]. He and a colleague, Boston pastor Joshua Hines, [3] recruited evangelical preachers and published books and pamphlets to support their teachings. The phenomenon became known as the Millerite Movement, and attracted some 50,000 adherents.

Northampton 1843-45

Like Miller, Truth believed the end of the world was near, but was not convinced of his timeline [4] [Note: Much of the reference material in this article is based on the book, Sojourner Truth, A Life and A Symbol, by Neil Patrick Painter, professor of history at Princeton University.] Nonetheless she became popular at Millerite meetings throughout the Northeast with her singing, prayer, and the ‘aptness of her remarks’ [5].

Opportunities to address audiences large and small accelerated the transformation from Isabella Van Wagenen to Sojourner Truth.

As the winter of 1843 approached, uneasy with some aspects of the Millerite Movement, and a preference for communal living, the itinerant Truth accepted the recommendation of Millerite friends to move to a commune in Northampton, Massachusetts [6].

The community was officially named The Northampton Association for Education and Industry [7]. One of the founders of the Association was the brother-in-law of  William Lloyd Garrison, the famed publisher and anti-slavery activist.  According to Painter:

[The Association] did not hold property in common or attempt to supplant existing family arrangements…it was organized “by religious men, upon anti-slavery ground…The need to heal class conflicts of the larger society, the worst of which was slavery, was one of the Northampton Association’s basic tenets.’ [8] Leading members of the abolitionist movement, including Garrison and Frederick Douglass, were featured lecturers [9].

Initially Truth was not impressed with the Association, but she ‘gradually became pleased’ with it. At Northampton she found a community consisting of some of the ‘choicest spirits of the age,’ where all was characterized by an ‘equality of feeling,’ ‘a liberty of thought and speech,’ and a ‘largeness of the soul.’ [10]

Engraving From 1868 Featuring The American Writer And Former Slave, Frederick Douglass (1818-1895).

Frederick Douglass, too, was impressed with the egalitarian nature of the community. He recalls: ‘the “place and the people struck me as the most democratic I had ever met. It was a place to extinguish all aristocratic pretentions. There was no high no low, no masters, no servants, no white, no black. I, however, felt myself in very high society.”’ [11]

In time Truth no longer considered herself a Millerite, but without the help of fellow believers, she was faced with the daunting task of earning an income.

In 1845 Frederick Douglass published the first of his autobiographies, the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, to enormous success, selling 4,500 copies in the first six months [12].  A year later, Sojourner Truth embarked on her own Narrative.  She dictated her story to Olive Gilbert, a fellow member of the commune at Northampton [13]. In 1850 The Narrative of Sojourner Truth was published [14].

Truth carried copies of the book and sold them where she preached and lectured.  The Narrative of Sojourner Truth further established Truth as a public figure, a popular preacher and lecturer.

The Ascendancy of Truth

In 1850 Truth addressed a ‘large’ women’s rights meeting in Worcester, Mass, the first such meeting of a ‘national scope’. It was a follow up to the landmark 1848 conference at Seneca Falls, New York. Many abolitionists were also pro-women’s rights, as was Garrison, Douglass, and Amy Post, one of the organizers of 1848 conference. Sojourner Truth was also part of this circle of activists and would become a lifelong friend of Post [15].

Aren’t I A Woman

On May 28, 1851 Frances Dana Gage and fellow activists in the women’s rights movement convened a conference at an Akron, Ohio, church. Among the speakers were male members of the abolitionist movement, and ministers from several faith denominations.  Also in attendance was the itinerant speaker, Sojourner Truth [16].

On the second day of the conference, after several speeches by men apparently dismissive of women’s search for equality, Sojourner Truth asked the event organizer, Gage, to speak.

May I say a few words…I want to say a few words about this matter. I am a woman’s rights. I have as much muscle as any man, and I can do as much work as any man. I have plowed and reaped and husked and chopped and mowed, and can any man do more than that? I have heard much about the sexes being equal; I can carry as much as any man, and can eat as much too, if I can get it. I am as strong as any man that is now. As for intellect, all I can say is, if a woman has a pint and a man a quart, why cant she have her little pint full? You need not be afraid to give us our rights for fear we will take too much,–for we cant take more than our pint’ll hold. The poor man seems to be all in confusion. And I don’t know what to do. Why children, if you have woman’s rights give it to her and you will feel better. You will have your own rights, and they wont be so much trouble. I cant read, but I can hear. I have heard the bible and have learned that Eve caused man to sin. Well if women upset the world, do give her a chance to set it right side up again. The lady has spoken about Jesus, how he never spurned woman from him, and she was right. When Lazarus died, Mary and Martha came to him with faith and love and besought him to raise their brother. And Jesus wept—and Lazarus came forth. And how came Jesus into the world? Through God who created him and woman who bore him. Man, where is your part? But the women are coming up blessed be God and a few of the men are coming up with them. But man is in a tight place, the poor slave is on him, and he is surely between a hawk and a buzzard.

The above account—later known as the ‘Aren’t I A Woman Speech’–would become inexorably linked to Truth. It appeared on the back page of the June 21, 1851 issue of the Anti-Slavery Bugle–a weekly publication of the Ohio Anti-Slavery Society, later the Western Anti-Slavery Society [17].  According to the Library of Congress, the Society reflected the ‘radical’ views of William Lloyd Garrison. It’s motto, ‘No union with slave owners’ and its mission statement, “to preach deliverance to the captive, and the opening of the prison door to them that are bound; to hasten in the day when ‘liberty shall be proclaimed throughout all the land, unto all inhabitants thereof’” succinctly stated its point of view.  In addition to its anti-slavery perspective it supported women’s rights and the ‘peace movement’, coming out against the government’s involvement in the Mexican-American War. It printed editorials, letters, calls for meetings, and speeches that supported its goals.

The 1850s

The 1850s were a tumultuous and culturally disruptive decade for the United States–a decade in which the issue of slavery was front and center.  In 1850 Congress passed a revised version of the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act, which allowed slaveholders to recapture escaped slaves in free states. The 1850 version, intended to mollify fears of southern states on the issue of slavery and preserve the Union, went even further. It compelled citizens to assist in the capture of runaway slaves, denied slaves the right to a jury trial, and paid federal ‘commissioners’ more for the return of captured slaves than for freeing them [18] 2017.  The new law put escaped slaves in jeopardy everywhere in the United States.

In the North reaction to the new law was intense.  It mobilized many abolitionists and helped usher in a brand-new actor on the political stage:  the Republican Party.

In 1856 the newly formed Republican Party held its first National convention, and fielded its first nominee for president, John C. Frémont, ‘on a platform that called on Congress to abolish slavery in the territories.’ [19].

Truth continued preaching. According to SojournerTruth.org, she addressed a meeting held by the Friends of Human Progress Association in Michigan, on October 4-5 of 1856. She spoke of her life in bondage–what it meant for her as a person, as a mother, as a ‘wife’, as a piece of property [20]:

I believe in Jesus, and I was forty years a slave but I did not know how dear to me was my posterity. I was so beclouded and crushed. But how good and wise is God, for if the slaves knowed what their true condition was, it would be more than the mind could bear. While the race is sold of all their rights — what is there on God’s footstool to bring them up? Has not God given to all his creatures the same rights? How could I travel and live and speak? When I had not got something to bear me up, when I’ve been robbed of all my affections for husband and children.

Some years ago there appeared to me a form (here the speaker gave a very graphic description of the vision she had). Then I learned that I was a human being. We had been taught that we was a species of monkey, baboon or ‘rang-o-tang, and we believed it — we’d never seen any of these animals. But I believe in the next world. When we gets up yonder, we shall have all of them rights ‘stored to us again — all that love what I’ve lost — all going to be ‘stored to me again. Oh! How good God is.

My mother said when we were sold, we must ask God to make our masters good, and I asked who He was. She told me, He sit up in the sky. When I was sold, I had a severe, hard master, and I was tied up in the barn and whipped. Oh! Till the blood run down the floor and I asked God, why don’t you come and relieve me — if I was you and you’se tied up so, I’d do it for you.

Truth’s speech addressed what was probably the pre-eminent issue of time.  Events within the next four years seemed to propel the country into an unavoidable confrontation over the issue of bondage.

The Gathering Storm

In March 1857, the United States Supreme Court ruled on one of the most infamous cases in its history, Scott v. Sandford. Dred Scott was a slave who travelled with his owner to a free state (Illinois) and lived in a free territory (Wisconsin) [21]. Scott eventually returned to Missouri where he saved to purchase freedom for his family and himself. In 1846, six years after returning to St. Louis, Scott had a new owner who refused to grant freedom.  Scott took his case to the Missouri State Court arguing that since he had lived in a free state, he was entitled to emancipation, based on the Missouri Compromise of 1820. After a series of lower court rulings, Scott’s case went to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court refused to hear the case, claiming it lacked jurisdiction. Chief Justice Roger Taney writing the majority opinion argued that since Scott was a negro and a slave (and thereby property) he was not a U.S. citizen and had no right to file a suit in federal court [22]. He added that the idea of him becoming emancipated by simply traveling to a free state was ‘absurd’ and ‘disgraceful’ [23]. The decision outraged Northern abolitionists and boosted support for the fledgling Republican Party and its anti-slavery platform.

 

In 1858, two years after dragging seven pro-slavery settlers from their homes and hacking them to death, [24] [25] a White radical anti-slavery activist, and self-proclaimed soldier of God, visited the free Black community in Chatham, Ontario, Canada. There the Connecticut native hatched a plan that had been percolating for some time: an armed anti-slavery insurrection in the South. The man’s name was John Brown.

In October 16th, 1859, Brown and twenty-one followers, including his five sons, raided the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia–the ‘biggest collection of weapons in the South.’ [26] The success of the raid depended on slaves joining Brown and his men, but not a single slave joined the group.  The following morning, U.S. Marines, under the command of Col. Robert E. Lee, surrounded the arsenal. Brown’s sons were killed and he was wounded and captured. During his trial he presented his cause as a ‘just war’, and himself as a martyr for God’s work. On December 2nd, 1859, Brown was executed by hanging. His exploits and the resulting trial were widely reported in the newspapers. He became an anti-slavery icon, admired by some abolitionists in the North, and reinforced anti-slavery fears among pro-slavery Whites in the South, who saw his exploits as confirmation of the North’s intention of overthrowing slavery through violent means.

Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War

In 1858, former congressman Abraham Lincoln, running for a seat in the UL.S. Senate, gained national attention after a series of debates with Democratic candidate, Stephen A. Douglas.  In 1854 Douglas had sponsored the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which supported the principle of ‘popular sovereignty’.   The Act was based on the premise that territories that had not yet become states should be able to chose whether to become a slave-holding state or free. Lincoln argued the territories should be free. Helost the race but gained national prominence for himself and the young Republican Patty [27].

On May 18, 1860 in Chicago, at its second national convention, the Republican Party nominated Abraham Lincoln as its candidate for president [28]. Almost six months later, on November 6th, Lincoln was elected the 16th president of the United Sates. The country was deeply divided. Lincoln won all Free states and none of the slave states [29]. He secured the victory over Senator Douglas, two other major candidates, and a divided Democratic Party. He won almost 40% of the popular vote and 180 out of 303 electoral college votes [30].

1860 U.S. Electoral Map (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Several southern states, hostile to the Republican Party’s anti-slavery platform, had threatened to secede if a Republican were elected president. Between Lincoln’s election in November and his inauguration on March 4th the following year, seven states seceded [31]. The Confederate States of America was established, with Jefferson Davis its president [32].

Just over a month after Lincoln’s inauguration, at 4:30 a.m. on April 12th, Confederate forces opened fire on Union soldiers at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbour, South Carolina. The Civil War had begun.

Emancipation Proclamation

Lincoln insisted that the war was not about freeing the slaves, but preserving the Union. By 1862 the South was using enslaved peoples to aid in the war effort. The North refused to allow African Americans to enlist. On September 22, 1862, Lincoln issued a preliminary emancipation proclamation, warning the Confederacy that if they did not surrender by January 1st of the following year, their slaves would be freed. But freedom would come to slaves in Confederate-held areas only—not to all people in bondage. This was clearly a military strategy, for it deprived the South of one of its most valuable assets: free labour. Lincoln kept his word and issued the final  Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863 [33]. Slaves in states that had seceded from the Union were now free. Slaves in border states loyal to the Union remained in bondage, as were those in Confederate areas that had already come under Northern control [34]. Nonetheless Black men were now allowed to fight for the Union cause and were admitted into the Army and Navy.

Widespread Influence

In 1852 Harriet Beecher Stowe published Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Life Among the Lowly.  The story, examining the brutality of slavery from what some consider a Christian perspective, sold more than 300,000 copies in the United States and 200,000 copies in England in its first year [35], on the way to becoming the best-selling novel of the 19th century [36]. It drew comments from as far and wide as Charles Dickens and Leo Tolstoy.

An endorsement by Harriet Beecher Stowe would have been an immense gift to any first-time author. In 1853, Truth met Mrs. Stowe at her home in Andover, Massachusetts and received an endorsement for the Narrative.

Ten years later, in April 1863, Mrs. Stowe published ‘Sojourner Truth, the Libyan Sybil’ in the Atlantic Monthly. In the lengthy article Stowe recollects her meeting with Truth some ten years previously. She depicts Truth as both a towering imposing figure—reminiscent of a famous statuette–and a stereotypical southern ‘mammy.’ She is also depicted as lovable, simple, uncultured, shrewd, with common-sense that escapes many far more educated than she. Mrs. Stowe writes:

When I went into the room, a tall, spare form arose to meet me. She was evidently a full-blooded African, and though now aged and worn with many hardships, still gave the impression of a physical development which in early youth must have been as fine a specimen of the torrid zone as Cumberworth’s celebrated statuette of the Negro Woman at the Fountain. Indeed, she so strongly reminded me of that figure, that, when I recall the events of her life, as she narrated them to me, I imagine her as a living, breathing impersonation of that work of art.

I do not recollect ever to have been conversant with any one who had more of that silent and subtle power which we call personal presence than this woman. In the modern Spiritualistic phraseology, she would be described as having a strong sphere. Her tall form, as she rose up before me, is still vivid to my mind. She was dressed in some stout, grayish stuff, neat and clean, though dusty from travel. On her head, she wore a bright Madras handkerchief, arranged as a turban, after the manner of her race. She seemed perfectly self-possessed and at her ease, — in fact, there was almost an unconscious superiority, not unmixed with a solemn twinkle of humor, in the odd, composed manner in which she looked down on me. Her whole air had at times a gloomy sort of drollery which impressed one strangely.

“So this is you,” she said.

“Yes,” I answered.

“Well, honey, de Lord bless ye! I jes’ thought I’d like to come an’ have a look at ye. You’s heerd o’ me, I reckon?” she added.

“Yes, I think I have. You go about lecturing, do you not?”

“Yes, honey, that’s what I do. The Lord has made me a sign unto this nation, an’ I go round a’testifyin’, an’ showin’ on ’em their sins agin my people.”

Mrs. Stowe presents Truth’s Christian testimony—of her encounter with Jesus through an electrifying, spiritual experience; her experiences a slave; of retrieving her son illegally sold into slavery. Mrs. Stowe adds an anecdote, originally shared by respected Boston anti-slavery and labour reform activist Wendell Phillips, that became inextricably linked with Sojourner Truth.

Speaking of the power of Rachel to move and bear down a whole audience by a few simple words, he [Phillips] said he never knew but one other human being that had that power, and that other was Sojourner Truth. He related a scene of which he was witness. It was at a crowded public meeting in Faneuil Hall, where Frederick Douglas was one of the chief speakers. Douglas had been describing the wrongs of the black race, and as he proceeded, he grew more and more excited, and finally ended by saying that they had no hope of justice from the whites, no possible hope except in their own right arms. It must come to blood; they must fight for themselves, and redeem themselves, or it would never be done.

Sojourner was sitting, tall and dark, on the very front seat, facing the platform; and in the hush of deep feeling, after Douglas sat down, she spoke out in her deep, peculiar voice, heard all over the house, —

“Frederick, is God dead?”

The effect was perfectly electrical, and thrilled through the whole house, changing as by a flash the whole feeling of the audience. Not another word she said or needed to say; it was enough.

The Atlantic Monthly article, written by the most celebrated writer of the day, put Sojourner Truth into the national consciousness., and further cemented her reputation among White, upper-class anti-slavery activists in the North.

Less than a month after the Libyan Sibyl article appeared, women’s rights activist and writer Frances Dana Gage published her account of Sojourner Truth’s speech at the women’s rights meeting in Akron, Ohio, twelve years earlier.  The article was published in The New York Independent and documented what would become Truth’s best-known speech–‘Aren’t I A Woman’. Though the speech was published twelve years earlier in the Anti-Slavery Bugle merely a month after it was delivered, it was Gage’s article that attracted the widespread audience that solidified Truth’s status as a woman’s rights activist.  Gage’s gift as a writer, with dramatic flair and stereotypical dialect (which was no doubt readily accepted by her readers), attracted widespread attention.

Two articles, published in respected, widely circulated journals within two months of each other, firmly established Truth as one of the most significant figures in the anti-slavery and women’s rights movements of nineteenth century America—a reputation that has not only survived but continues to grow to this day.

Truth’s Visit with Lincoln

Truth was a supporter of President Lincoln, and vowed to see the first ‘Abolitionist President’ (in person) [37]. With funds raised by a group of friends, she left Battle Creek, Michigan, in mid-1864, her grandson in tow, and travelled to Washington D.C.  On the way she gave speeches in support of Lincoln’s re-election campaign. In Boston she met Harriet Tubman, who was well know for helping slaves escape years earlier through the Underground Railroad.  Painter suggests that, at the time of their 1864 meeting, Tubman and Truth differed on their perceptions of Lincoln. Truth was earnest in her support, while Tubman was more skeptical. Having been exposed to Black Union soldiers in Boston, she was aware of the unequal treatment they received compared to White soldiers [38].

Through a connection with Mary Todd Lincoln’s assistant, Truth was granted a meeting with the president at 8 a.m., Saturday, October 29th, 1864 [39].

There are varying reports on what transpired during the visit. In the 1875 and 1884 editions of her biography, Truth was effusive about their meeting. In a letter dated November 17, 1864, dictated to a friend, Truth recalls the meeting [40].

The president was seated at his desk.  Mrs. C. [Lucy Colman, a White friend who had assisted in securing Truth’s meeting with Lincoln] [41], said to him, “This is Sojourner Truth, who has come all the way from Michigan to see you.” He then arose, gave me his hand, made a bow, and said, “I am please to meet you.”

I said to him, Mr. President, when you first took your seat I feared you would be torn to pieces, for I likened you unto Daniel, who was thrown into the lion’s den, and if the lions did not tear you into pieces, I knew that it would be God that had saved you; and I said if he spared me I would see you before the four years expired, and he has done so, and now I am here to see you for myself.

The letter references the emancipation proclamation and Lincoln’s predecessors, particularly George Washington.  Lincoln claimed that if the opportunity had availed itself, they all would have done what he did. He added that if the South had not rebelled he could not have emancipated the slaves. He then showed her the Bible given to him by the colored people of Baltimore.  Truth continues:

I must say, and I am proud to say, that I never was treated by any one with more kindness and cordiality than were shown to me by that great and good man, Abraham Lincoln, by the grace of God president of the United States for four years more. He took my little book, and with the same hand that signed the death-warrant of slavery, he wrote as follows:

“For Aunty Sojourner Truth,

Oct. 29, 1864.

A Lincoln”

Painter suggest the meeting may have had a very different tone. Years after Lincoln’s assassination, Truth’s companion that day wrote her own narrative of the encounter. In it she describes Lincoln’s demeanour– ‘relaxed and funny’ with his previous White male guests, but ‘tense’ and ‘sour’ with Truth. She adds: ‘Being loved as the Great Emancipator irritated Lincoln…He believed in the white race, not in the colored, and did not want them put on an equality’ [42].

Truth made subsequent visits to the White House and met with Presidents Andrew Johnson and Ulysses S. Grant [43].

Truth During and After the Civil War

At the outbreak of the War, Truth quickly supported the Union cause. At a pro-Union rally at the Steuben County courthouse in Indiana, she was arrested on an obscure law that prohibited Black people from entering the state. The law was rarely enforced. Thousands of Blacks lived in the state and Sojourner had spoken there previously without incident.  For ten days the authorities repeatedly detained and released her, before ultimately letting her go [44].

Truth initially volunteered for the Union effort from her home in Battle Creek, Michigan. In 1863, she collected food for the Black soldiers of the First Michigan Regiment stationed at Camp Ward in Detroit. In addition to delivering food and clothing to the soldiers, she reportedly spoke at formal ceremonies, albeit to segregated audiences [45].

In March 1865 Congress established the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, which became known as the Freedmen’s Bureau. The Bureau was created to assist in providing social and educational welfare for former slaves in their efforts to adapt to a life after bondage [46]. Abolitionists like Truth were commissioned to help in achieving the Bureau’s mandate. She also worked with the National Freedmen’s Relief Association, a private organization established to assist former slaves adjust to newfound freedom [47]. One of Truth’s responsibilities was to work at the Freedmen’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. (Established in 1862 to care for freed, disabled and aged African Americans [48], it was the predecessor to the teaching hospital at Howard University’s Medical School.)

Her work at the hospital required travel around Washington D.C. to procure items for her patients. The city’s streetcars were a means for doing so. The streetcar company set aside one such car—The Jim Crow car—for ‘colored’ people. By now an old woman, and well known for her speaking and activism–Truth complained to the president of the streetcar company. The ‘Jim Crow’ car was subsequently removed, giving Black equal access—theoretically, at least—with Whites [49].

The removal of the ‘Jim Crow’ car did nothing to alleviate negative attitudes towards Blacks however.   Truth relates how on numerous occasions she waved at one streetcar after another to stop and let her board, to no avail. On one occasion, while returning to the Freedmen’s hospital with a White companion, a conductor attempted to physically throw her off the car.

The conductor grabbed me by the shoulder and jerking me by the shoulder, ordered me to get out. I told him I would not. Mrs. Haviland [her White traveling companion] took hold of my other arm and said, ‘Don’t put her out.’  The conductor asked if I belonged to her. ‘No,’ replied Mrs. Havliand, ‘she belongs to humanity.’  ‘Then take her and go,’ said he, and giving me another push slammed me against the door. I told him I would let him know whether he could shove me about like a dog, and said to Mrs. Haviland, Take the number of this car.

On arriving at the hospital a surgeon discovered that ‘a bone was misplaced.’  Truth, with the help of the Freedmen’s Bureau, had the conductor charged.  He eventually lost his job. The case gained much attention and soon thereafter the streetcars looked like ‘salt and pepper’ [50].

Civil War’s Aftermath: ‘Contraband’

The Fugitive Slave Laws required escaped slaves to be returned to their owners.   On August 6, 1861, four months after the start of the Civil War, fugitive slaves fleeing their former owners were declared property of the Union army, or “contraband of war” if their labor had been used to aid the Confederacy in any way. And if found to be contraband, they were declared free [51].

After the War the name remained: former slaves continued to be called ‘contraband.’ Many moved from Virginia to Washington D.C. where they lived in squalid settlement camps, rife with filth, poverty, and crime. The ‘Book of Life’ section in the 1875 and 1884 editions of Truth’s Narrative presents a report by the Superintendent of police that reads, in part:

[C]rime, filth and poverty seem to vie with each other in a career of degradation and death. Whole families, consisting of fathers, mothers, children, uncles and aunts, according to their own statements, are crowded into apologies for shanties, which are without light or ventilation. During the storms of rain or snow their roofs afford but light protection, while from beneath a few rough boards used for floors the miasmatic effluvia from the most disgustingly filthy and stagnant water, mingled with the exhalations from the uncleansed bodies of numerous inmates, render the atmosphere within these hovels stifling and sickening to the extreme [52].

Having lost several of her own children, Truth considered the poor, the destitute–the ‘contrabands’–her own offspring, and embarked on a crusade to improve their welfare. She found homes and employment for them in the Northern states, and obtained labourers to rebuild communities destroyed by the War [53].

In Washington D.C.  crime became an ongoing concern for the young, who were trapped in a vicious cycle of crime, incarceration and release. Truth could not help but compare the magnificent edifices built within the city with the hopelessness of the city’s poor, and decided to correct what she saw as a social injustice. She gathered signatures to petition the United States Congress and the Senate to set apart a portion of land in the ‘West’, and to erect buildings there for the ‘aged’ and ‘infirmed [54]. In February 1870 Truth took her message to the people, launching a speaking tour in Providence, R.I., [55], followed by lectures throughout the North–Fall River and Boston, Massachusetts; Springfield and Orange, New Jersey; Philadelphia, Rochester, Syracuse, New York City, Detroit and her adopted home town of Battle Creek, Michigan.  She received newspaper coverage at these locales, in many instances receiving good notices., some reprinted in her Narrative.

Audience reception to her lecture tour was mixed: some audiences were large, others, sparse. The petition did not make it to Congress. In 1875, Truth’s grandson and long-time traveling companion, Samuel Banks, died at aged twenty-five [56]. By the late 1870s Truth’s health had declined, and by the Fall of 1883 she lay mortally ill with ulcers on her legs [57]. She died on November 26, 1883, at about aged eighty-six.

Women’s Rights Legacy

Sojourner Truth embodies three key strands of the social fabric of her day: faith, civil rights and women’s rights. She, however, is greater than the combination of the three. Her indefatigable Christian faith fuelled an iron will to fulfill what she believed was God’s calling on her life—a call to travel the land and spread God’s message–a call to believe in her beloved Jesus Christ, a call to end the evil of slavery and to uplift the people of her race, and a call to recognize and accept the rights and dignity of women.

Her faith and dedication to her race is clear from her preaching and her life experiences, but it is her reputation as a women’s rights activist that has come to the forefront in recent years. Yet this is the role that is probably most complex, most nuanced.

Frances Dana Gage’s report on Truth’s ‘Aren’t I A Woman’ speech solidified her women’s rights credentials, as does her appearance in Susan B. Anthony’s and Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s History of Woman Suffrage.  Moreover Truth is quoted as saying: ‘If colored men got their rights, and not colored women theirs, you see colored men will be masters over the women, and it will be just as bad as it was before.’ [58] But there is more to the story.

Prior to the Civil War and emancipation, many in the abolitionist movement were also pro-women’s rights:  Truth, Douglass, evangelist Henry Ward Beecher, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony supported both anti-slavery and women’s rights issues. After the Civil War and the passage of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, which permanently put an end to slavery and gave Black men the right to vote, a schism in the women’s rights movement became clear.  One side, led by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, balked at the idea of Black men–former slaves, ignorant and illiterate–having the right to vote, while educated, cultured, White women did not. Stanton is quoted as saying that If truly universal suffrage was not feasible, she ‘preferred to enfranchise educated people first, for “this incoming tide of ignorance, poverty and vice” must not be empowered. Without woman suffrage only the highest type of manhood should vote and hold office’ [59].

The other side, supporting universal suffrage for men and women, refused to allow the suffrage of Black men held hostage by the lack of suffrage of (White) women.  Supporters of this group included Douglass, Frances Dana Gage, and lesser known women’s rights activists Lucy Stone and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, a Black poet, and noted public speaker and civil rights activist in her own right [60].

Ultimately Truth was forced to chose between the two factions, and selected the latter. Stanton’s and Anthony’s embrace of Southern Democrats, who sought to halt passage of the Fifteenth Amendment granting Black men the right to vote, was a choice that she could not make.

Concluding Remarks

Because Sojourner Truth was unable to read or write—limited to communicate her experiences without filter–we are at the mercy of those who knew her or researched her story to paint a picture of this incredible woman. How much of what we know is authentic Sojourner Truth and how much reflects the perspective and potential bias of the messenger? The Christian messenger will stress her undeniable faith; the civil rights activist will highlight her anti-slavery work and speeches; the feminist will emphasize her contribution to women’s rights. As society and culture change, her image will evolve, as successive generations claim those aspects of her life and contribution that reinforces their values. Is this positive or negative? Undoubtedly a bit of both. The differing interpretations of her life will insure a contemporary image as times change—a fresh perspective of her contribution. Alternatively there will inevitably be some question on how accurate that perspective really is, and who Sojourner Truth really was.

© Weldon Turner 2017 All Rights Reserved

 

Images

Sojourner Truth and Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln (1809 – 1865) reading the Bible with former slave and abolitionist Sojourner Truth (1797-1883), originally Isabella Van Wagener, in a print presented to the President by the black community of Baltimore to commemorate the Emancipation Proclamation. (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)
Credit:                  MPI / Stringer
Collection:           Archive Photos
Date created:    January 1, 1862
Licence type:     Editorial

Frederick Douglas

Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), abolitionist, author and statesman.
Image courtesy iStock (by Getty Images)
License type: Standard

1860 U.S. Electoral Map

File courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
This map was obtained from an edition of the National Atlas of the United States. Like almost all works of the U.S. federal government, works from the National Atlas are in the public domain in the United States.
Online access: NationalAtlas.gov | 1970 print edition: Library of Congress, Perry-Castañeda Library
URL: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:1860_Electoral_Map.jpg#filelinks

References

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[3] Christianitytoday.com, http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/denominationalfounders/william-miller.html
[4] Neil Irvin Painter, Sojourner Truth, A Life, a Symbol, W.W. Norton, 1996, p83
[5] Painter, Sojourner Truth, p87
[6] Painter, Sojourner Truth, p87
[7] Painter, Sojourner Truth, p89
[8] Painter, Sojourner Truth, p93
[9] Painter, Sojourner Truth, p88
[10] Painter, Sojourner Truth, p89
[11] Painter, Sojourner Truth, pp93-94
[12] Painter, Sojourner Truth, p103
[13] Painter, Sojourner Truth, p101
[14] Sojourner Truth, Olive Gilbert and Frances Titus, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth, (1884 edition), Penguin Books, 1998 p x
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[60] Painter, Sojourner Truth, p223

Bibliography

Sojourner Truth, Olive Gilbert and Frances Titus, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth, (1884 edition), Penguin Books, 1998 (This narrative was original published in 1884, a year after Truth’s death. Frances Titus, her long-time friend, added the ‘Book of Life’ and a ‘Memorial Chapter’ for this edition. The 1998 edition was edited with an introduction by Neil Irvin Painter.

Neil Irvin Painter, Sojourner Truth, A Life, a Symbol, W.W. Norton, 1996.

Links

Christianitytoday.com, http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/denominationalfounders/william-miller.html,   accessed, October 4, 2017

Christianitytoday.com, http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/denominationalfounders/william-miller.html, accessed, October 4, 2017

Christianitytoday.com, http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/denominationalfounders/william-miller.html, accessed, October 4, 2017

Library of Congress, loc.gov,  http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83035487/ accessed, September 6, 2017

History.com, http://www.history.com/topics/black-history/fugitive-slave-acts  accessed, September 17, 2017

Britannica.com, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Republican-Party  accessed, September 17, 2017

SojournerTruth.org, http://www.sojournertruth.org/Library/Speeches  accessed September 10, 2017

History.com,  http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/dred-scott-decision, accessed September 30, 2017

Pbs.org, https://www.pbs.org/wnet/supremecourt/antebellum/landmark_dred.html, accessed September 30, 2017

Library of Congress, loc.gov, https://www.loc.gov/resource/llst.022/?sp=9, accessed September 22, 2017

Biography.com, https://www.biography.com/people/john-brown-9228496 , accessed September 17, 2017

USHisotry.org, http://www.ushistory.org/us/31d.asp, both accessed September 17, 2017

History.com, http://www.history.com/topics/john-brown, accessed September 22, 2017

History,org, http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/abraham-lincoln-elected-president, accessed, October 4, 2017

Politico.com, http://www.politico.com/story/2011/05/republicans-nominate-abraham-lincoln-may-18-1860-055138, accessed, October 4, 2017

Historynet.com, http://www.historynet.com/abraham-lincoln-election, accessed, October 4, 2017

University of California at Santa Barbara, ucsb.edu, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/showelection.php?year=1860, accessed, September 23, 2017

Civilwar.org, https://www.civilwar.org/learn/articles/civil-war-facts, accessed September 223, 2017

History.com, http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/abraham-lincoln-elected-president, accessed September 23, 2017

pbs.org, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4p2967.html, accessed, September 27, 2017

Archives.gov, https://www.archives.gov/exhibits/featured-documents/emancipation-proclamation, accessed, September 30, 2017

pbs.org, https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4p2958.html, accessed, September 30, 2017

HistoryNet.com, http://www.historynet.com/uncle-toms-cabin, accessed, September 30, 2017

U.S. National Library of Medicine, https://www.nlm.nih.gov/hmd/medtour/howard.html, accessed September 27, 2017

pbs.org, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4p2967.html, accessed September27, 2017

 

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