Saturday, July 27, 2013

Sojourner Truth

Sojourner Truth

1797 - 1883

African-American abolitionist and women's rights activist Sojourner Truth was born into slavery as Isabella Baumfree in Swartekill, Ulster County, New York. She was one of the ten or twelve children born to James and Elizabeth Baumfree,  Africans captured from the Gold Coast in modern-day Ghana. Isabella was sold several times in her youth, and married Thomas, picked out by her slave holder John Dumont  in Ulster County, New York.  Together they had five children.  Her first, Diana (1815), was fathered by Robert, her true love from a neighboring farm, whose master, a Mr. Catlin, forbade the relationship; Thomas, who died shortly after birth, Peter (1821), Elizabeth (1825), and Sophia (ca. 1826) were all fathered by her husband Thomas. 

Beginning in 1799, New York had begun to legislate the abolition of slavery.   Emancipation was finalized on July 4, 1827. Dumont, knowing this was to occur,  had promised to grant Isabella her freedom on July 4th, 1826, "if she would do well and be faithful." On that date, however, he changed his mind: a hand injury had made her less productive, and Isabella remained long enough to spin 100 pounds of wool, satisfying her sense of obligation to Dumont.  She then escaped with her infant daughter, Sophia, leaving behind her other children because a New York emancipation order did not permit their freedom until they had served as bound servants into their twenties. Isabella explained: "I did not run off, for I thought that wicked, but I walked off, believing that to be all right."   

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Isabella was taken in by Isaac and Maria Van Wagener, who settled her remaining one year service account with Dumont for $20.00. One year later, New York law emancipated all slaves but Dumont had already sold Peter, Isabella's five year old child, into slavery in Alabama. Isabella sued in court, with the help of the Wageners,  to recover her son. She became the first black woman, after several months of litigation, to win such a case against a white man.  

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Isabella became a devout Christian during her stay with the Van Wageners. In 1829, she accepted a housekeeper's job working for Elijah Pierson, a Christian Evangelist, and moved to New York with her son Peter. She remained with Pierson until 1832 when she accepted a job with "Prophet" Robert Matthews, another preacher. Shortly after her move, Elijah Pierson died, and Isabella, along with Matthews, was accused of theft and poisoning her former employer. They were acquitted and Robert Matthews moved west, leaving Isabella in New York.  Isabella continued to work as a household servant after the acquittal.

In 1843, believing that she received instructions from the Holy Spirit, she took the name "Sojourner Truth."  She remarked to her friends: The Spirit calls me, and I must go." Sojourner became a Methodist and became a traveling preacher in honor of her new name.  She joined the Northampton Association of Education and Industry that was founded by abolitionists in 1844. The organization also supported women's rights and religious tolerance. While in Northampton, Massachusetts, Sojourner met Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, and David Ruggles. After the group disbanded, she went to work as a housekeeper for George Benson, the brother-in-law of William Lloyd Garrison.  

In 1849, Sojourner included speeches on woman suffrage in her abolitionist engagements.  In that same year, she started dictating her memoirs to  Olive Gilbert. In 1850 William Lloyd Garrison privately published her book, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave. The proceeds from the book, and subsequent speaking engagements, enabled her to purchase a home in Northampton. As her suffrage star rose, Sojourner was recruited to be featured speaker at the first National Women's Rights Convention in Worcester, Massachusetts. Her most notable speech, Ain't I a Woman?, was given in Ohio at the 1851 Women's Rights Convention.  

In the 1850's, Sojourner spoke before hundreds of audiences. The Ohio Anti-Slavery Bugle championed her cause,enabling her to travel around that state speaking. She also spoke at a suffragist "mob convention" at the Broadway Tabernacle in New York City. In 1853, she  met Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote about her for the Atlantic Monthly. Stowe also wrote a new introduction to Truth's autobiography, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth.  In 1856, Sojourner traveled to Michigan to speak to a group called the Friends of Human Progress in Battle Creek. In 1858, during a speech, someone interrupted her, insisting that she was a man. Truth, who had been accused of this in the past, opened her blouse and revealed her breasts.  During this period, Sojourner Truth moved to Michigan and joined a religious commune associated with the Friends. Later she associated with the Millerites, a religious Methodist movement that became the Seventh Day Adventists.

Sojourner Truth, albumen silver print, circa 1870 from the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

During the Civil War, Sojourner Truth helped recruit black troops while raising food and clothing contributions for Union Negro regiments. On October 29th, 1864, she met Abraham Lincoln at the White House. While in Washington, she challenged the discrimination that segregated street cars by riding to and from her work at Freedman's Hospital.  

On  February 4, 1865, Harper's Weekly reported on Sojourner:
"...But Freedman's Village has another and quite as powerful teacher in that well-known lecturess--Sojourner Truth. We found the veteran laborer for the slave in one of the little cottages, her hands in the flour...But Sojourner replied with energy that this was only a 'large Government poorhouse' She wanted 'her folks to be learning habits of economy, to be earning something, to become real Yankees.' we bought one of Sojourner's pictures...Some horse-cars labeled 'Colored persons not admitted' collect fares from far less sensible ones than honest, earnest, and God-worshiping Sojourner Truth." 

Cabinet Photo of President Abraham Lincoln showing Sojourner Truth the Bible presented by colored people of Baltimore, Executive Mansion, Washington, D.C., Oct. 29, 1864 which is part of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs.

After the war, Sojourner moved from Harmonia to Battle Creek. In the late 1860's she traveled  all over the East Coast doing numerous speaking engagements.  In 1870, Truth championed the rights of former slaves seeking to secure land grants from the federal government. She pursued this path for seven years--even meeting with President Ulysses S. Grant--but was unsuccessful. In 1872, she attempted to vote in the presidential election, but was turned away at the Battle Creek polling place.

The following letter, dictated to her grandson William Still in Battle Creek on January 4, 1876, provides a brief narrative on Sojourner: 

A Pilgrim of God, Sojourner Truth believed herself to have been chosen to free her people from slavery.  Her speeches, delivered in a bass voice which raised doubt in the minds of some concerning her sex, were so powerful, eloquent, and persuasive that she ranked only behind Frederick Douglas as the most effective anti-slavery orator.  She had escaped from bondage as Isabella, and renamed herself to symbolize her wanderings and her message.  Frequent efforts were made to silence her; she was stoned and beaten,  Sojourner Truth continued on her mission with dignity.  She knew all the major abolitionists, and was invited by Lincoln to the White House.  
At the end of her life she was impoverished.  Her letter to Still of Underground Railroad fame stated that she hoped, while visiting the Centennial Exposition, to sell some of her books "to raise the mortgage off [her] house."  She was unlettered, so her grandson wrote for her: "I am like a horse as no other doctor could cure me but a horse doctor."  This was the tough old woman who wore across her chest on public platforms a satin banner with the words:  "Proclaim liberty throughout the land unto the inhabitants thereof."

A year before Sojourner Truth passed away, the March 11, 1882, Harper's Weekly reported in an inconspicuous  page three  Personal column that: 
Sojourner Truth writes to us from Battle Creek, Michigan, in reference to recent published paragraphs of her having a fine home, and her having made a will, etc. She says she has made no will, owns no farm, but has a small house encumbered by a mortgage, and has no income but what she derives from the narrative of her life and sale of her photograph, which she hopes, and we hope, her friends will buy to help her along in this one-hundred-and-seventh year of her stay on earth.  
Sojourner died on November 26, 1883, at her home in Battle Creek, Michigan.

THE WOMAN'S JOURNAL, Boston, Aug. 5, 1876  Rare women's suffrage paper founded in 1870, edited by Mary Livermore, Lucy Stone and Julia Ward Howe. Published:  " the interests of Woman, to her educational, industrial, legal & political Equality, & especially to her right of Suffrage". Among the articles are one on Sojourner Truth, which reflects upon her recent death; "Woman's Part in the American Future" "Woman Suffrage In N.E. Village" "Concerning Women" "The Miseries of Being Famous" "No Test For Suffrage" "Woman Suffrage In Colorado" "A Political Suffrage Party" "Suffrage in the Woman's Congress" Add caption

Woman's Journal Article begins: Sojourner Truth, whose death has recently been announced and is now contradicted, is one of the most remarkable women of the age.She has been a slave in New York State, but emancipated fifty years ago.  She has rare natural gifts; a clear intellect; a fine moral intuition and spirited insight, with much common sense.  She could never read, and often said, that all the great trouble in the world came from those who could read, and not from those who could not, and that she was glad she never knew how to read.   

She took a deep and personal interest in the anti-slavery movement.  Her speeches came with direct and terrible force, moving friend and foe alike.  She was quick to see the weak point of the enemy, and also to hit.  And when her side needed strengthening she knew just when and where to help.

Sojourner Truth Biography
Appletons Encyclopedia 1887  

SOJOURNER TRUTH, lecturer, born in Ulster county, New York, about 1775; died in Battle Creek, Michigan, 26 November, 1883. Her parents were owned by Colonel Charles Ardinburgh, of Ulster county, and she was sold at the age of ten to John J. Dumont. Though she was emancipated by the act of New York which set at liberty in 1817 all slaves over the age of forty, she does not appear to have obtained her freedom until 1827, when she escaped and went to New York city. Subsequently she lived in Northampton, Massachusetts, and in 1851 began to lecture in western New York, accompanied by George Thompson, of England, and other Abolitionists, making her headquarters in Rochester, New York. Subsequently she traveled in various parts of the United States, lecturing on politics, temperance, and women's rights, and for the welfare of her race. She could neither read nor write, but, being nearly six feet in height and possessing a deep and powerful voice, she proved an effective lecturer. 

Original carte de visite of Sojourner Truth, three-quarter length portrait, standing, wearing spectacles, shawl, and peaked cap, right hand resting on cane.

She carried with her a book that she called "The Book of Life." containing the autographs of many distinguished persons that were identified with the anti-slavery movement. Her name was Isabella, but she called herself "Sojourner," claiming to have heard this name whispered to her from the Lord. She added the appellation of "Truth" to signify that she should preach nothing but truth to all men. She spent much time in Washington, D. C., during the civil war, and passed her last years in Battle Creek, Michigan, where a small monument was erected near her grave, by subscription.  -- "Narrative of Sojourner Truth, drawn from her ' Book of Life, ' with Memorial Chapter," by Mrs. Francis W. Titus (Battle Creek, 1884).  

Daguerreotype of Frederick Douglass Circa: 1847-52 by Samuel J. Miller (1822-1888)
Rochester, New York
June 15, 1855

But let us return to the meetings. We saw Sojourner Truth  there; she made several ineffectual attempts to speak, but while we were there she did not get an opportunity. We were anxious to hear her, more, however, from curiosity than anything else, for it is the first time we have had the pleasure of “laying our eyes on her,” and we had a “woman's curiosity” to hear what she had to say, as we have so often heard that she has such a store of “mother wit.” She certainly did very well with her book, for the abolitionists bought it like fun, and that is the application of the anti-slavery doctrine that we need so much; let us have the pecuniary encouragement in which we show ourselves competent. A little pecuniary assistance is of more practical importance to us than ten thousand resolutions.

By: Stanley Yavneh Klos                     Edited by: Naomi Yavneh Klos, Ph.D.

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