Celebrating Women’s History Month, I offer a reflection this weekend about a wonderfully courageous African American woman: Sojourner Truth. She was strong, six feet tall, a former slave, and a powerful evangelist, abolitionist, and women’s rights activist.
Sojourner Truth was born Isabella “Belle” Baumfree in 1797. Her parents were slaves owned by the New York slave owner, Colonel Hardenbergh, in Swartekill, New York. One of twelve children, she lived a torturous life as a slave. She was owned by several masters throughout New York State. Around age nine, Belle was sold at a slave auction for $100 along with a flock of sheep. Her new owner, a John Neely, was a cruel and violent slave master who beat her daily, because she didn’t speak English. She was sold two more times by age 13. She ultimately ended up at the West Park, New York home of John Dumont and his second wife Elizabeth. Considerable tension existed between Belle and Dumont’s wife, who regularly harassed her. Elizabeth’s husband, John, raped her.
While working for the Dumonts, Belle fell in love, around age 18, with a slave named Robert who was a slave on a nearby farm. The couple was not allowed to marry, however, since they had separate owners. Robert’s owner, Charles Catton, Jr., a landscape painter, forbade their relationship. He did not want his slaves to have children with people owned by someone else, because he would then not own the children. One day Robert sneaked over to see Belle. When Catton and his son found him, they savagely beat him. After that day, Belle never saw Robert again. The experience haunted Belle for the rest of her life
Belle the slave was then forced to marry another slave owned by the Dumonts. His name was Thomas. Belle eventually bore five children: James, her firstborn, who died in childhood; Diana (1815), the result of a rape by John Dumont; Peter (1821); Elizabeth (1825); and Sophia (ca. 1826). In 1826 Belle escaped to freedom with her infant daughter, Sophia. She said years later: “I did not run off, for I thought that wicked, but I walked off, believing that to be all right.” They found refuge in New Paltz, New York, where she and her daughter were taken in by Isaac and Maria Van Wagenen.
When her former slave owner, John Dumont came to re-claim his “property Belle,” the Van Wagenens offered to buy Belle’s services from him for $20 until the New York Anti-Slavery Law emancipating all slaves took effect in 1827. Dumont agreed. After the New York Anti-Slavery Law was passed, however, he illegally sold Belle’s five-year-old son Peter. When Belle learned that her son had been sold by John Dumont to an owner in Alabama, she took the issue to court. In 1828, with assistance from the Van Wagenens and after months of legal proceedings, she got back her son, who had been abused by his new owners. Belle became one of the first black women to go to court against a white man and win the case.
It was during her stay with Isaac and Maria Van Wagenen that Belle – Isabella Baumfree – had a profound religious experience and became a devout Methodist Christian. On Pentecost Sunday, 1843, she changed her name to “Sojourner Truth.” She believed she was called by God to travel around the nation –to Sojourn– and to preach the Truth of his word. Thus, she believed God gave her the name, “Sojourner Truth.” She told her friends: “The Spirit calls me. I must go.”
At what she believed was God’s urging, Sojourner preached about abolitionism and equal rights for all. In 1844, Sojourner Truth joined a Massachusetts abolitionist organization called the Northampton Association of Education and Industry. There she met Frederick Douglas and other leading abolitionists and effectively launched her career as an equal rights activist. In 1850 she spoke at the very first National Women’s Rights Convention in Worcester, Massachusetts. In 1851, Sojourner Truth spoke out powerfully about equal rights for black women at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention. Reporters published various transcripts of that speech, which was later (but incorrectly) called: “Ain’t I A Woman?” She met with the leading women’s rights activists of her day: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.
In 1853, Sojourner spoke at a suffragist “mob convention” at the Broadway Tabernacle in New York City. It was officially a Women’s Rights Convention but called a “mob convention” due to the numerous disruptions by protesters.There she also met Harriet Beecher Stowe. In 1856, Sojourner Truth traveled to Battle Creek, Michigan, to speak to a group called the “Friends of Human Progress.” Antislavery movements at that time had begun early in Michigan and Ohio.
In Battle Creek she also joined the nucleus of the Michigan abolitionists, the Progressive Friends, some of whom she had already met at national conventions. From 1857 to 1867 Sojourner Truth lived in the village of Harmonia, Michigan, a Spiritualist utopia, close to Battle Creek. Harmonia was established by Quaker pioneers who had converted to Spiritualism, a religious movement that believed the spirits of the dead communicated with the living. The only remnant of Harmonia today is its cemetery atop a hill in a remote part of today’s Battle Creek Fort Custer Industrial Park.
Like another famous escaped slave, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth had helped recruit black soldiers for the Union army during the Civil War (1861 – 1865). She worked in Washington, D.C., for the National Freedman’s Relief Association and rallied people to donate food, clothes and other supplies to help black refugees. She worked diligently to improve conditions for African-Americans. While in Washington, she courageously put her disdain for segregation on display by riding on whites-only streetcars. Her activism for the abolitionist movement gained the attention of President Abraham Lincoln, who invited her to the White House in October 1864 and showed her a Bible given to him by African Americans in Baltimore.
In 1870, Sojourner Truth tried to secure land grants from the federal government for former enslaved people, a project she pursued for seven years without success. While in Washington, D.C., she had a meeting with President Ulysses S. Grant in the White House. In 1872, she settled permanently in Battle Creek, Michigan (my former hometown) where two of her daughters lived. She became active in Grant’s presidential re-election campaign. She even tried to vote on Election Day, but was turned away at the polling place.
In the last years of her life, Sojourner Truth was cared for by her daughters. She died early in the morning on November 26, 1883, at her Battle Creek home on College St. (We never knew this at the time, but my wife and I had our first home on College Street.) On November 28, 1883, her funeral was held at the Congregational-Presbyterian Church officiated by its pastor, the Reverend Reed Stuart. Some of the prominent citizens of Battle Creek acted as pall-bearers. Nearly one thousand people attended the service. She was buried in the city’s Oak Hill Cemetery.
Frederick Douglass, the African American social reformer, abolitionist, orator, and statesman, offered a eulogy for her in Washington, D.C. “Venerable for age, distinguished for insight into human nature, remarkable for independence and courageous self-assertion, devoted to the welfare of her race, she has been for the last forty years an object of respect and admiration to social reformers everywhere.”
A bronze bust of Sojourner Truth, by the Canadian sculptor Artis Lane, was unveiled on April 28, 2009 in Emancipation Hall in the US Capitol Visitor Center. It shows her in a cap and shawl similar to the way in which she was so often photographed. The bronze bust was the first sculpture of an African-American woman to be on display in the Capitol. First Lady Michelle Obama, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Senator Hilary Clinton, and Representative Sheila Jackson Lee were among those who offered remarks at the unveiling.
One of my favorite Sojourner quotations is: “Religion without humanity is very poor human stuff.” I remember her gravesite at Oak Hill Cemetery, and another Sojourner quotation: “I am not going to die, I’m going home like a shooting star.” Over the years I have often read her famous 1851 address, “Ain’t I a Woman?” supposedly delivered at the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio.
In fact, however, I have very recently discovered that the popular version of her speech is an inaccurate version, written by a white abolitionist named Frances Dana Barker Gage and published in 1863, thus 12 years after the Ohio speech. Frances Gage not only changed all of Sojourner’s words but chose to represent Sojourner speaking in a stereotypical Southern black slave accent, rather than in Sojourner’s distinct upper New York State low-Dutch accent. Sojourner Truth was born and raised in New York, and she spoke only upper New York State low-Dutch until she was nine years old.
People said that Frances Gage’s actions were well intended and did serve the suffrage and women’s rights movement at the time. Nevertheless, her actions were unethical and a major misrepresentation of Sojourner Truth’s words and identity.
The most authentic version of Sojourner Truth’s, Women’s Convention speech in Akron, Ohio was first published in 1851 by Sojourner Truth’s good friend the Rev. Marius Robinson in the Anti-Slavery Bugle and was titled, “On Woman’s Rights” and not “Ain’t I a Woman.”
And here it is:
On Woman’s Rights
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 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 women have a pint and man a quart – why can’t 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 men seem to be all in confusion, and 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 woman 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, woman is coming on him, and he is surely between-a hawk and a buzzard.
With great appreciation and still full of wonder about the amazing Sojourner Truth….