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Sojourner Truth: Friend of Freedom

The former slave left an indelible imprint on America, despite a series of tremendous obstacles.

Lynne Graves/Flickr Creative Commons

Fredrick Douglass, the famous ex-slave, never forgot the night he gave his most pessimistic speech, in Boston’s Faneuil Hall. A packed house heard him lash the evils of slavery, then conclude hopelessly that the white people of America would never put an end to the Negro’s bondage. There was only one answer, he asserted gloomily, and that was an armed revolt by the slaves themselves, which could only result in wholesale slaughter.

Suddenly, at the rear of the speakers’ platform, a gaunt, shabbily dressed blade woman arose, her six feet of height almost dwarfing Douglass. In her enormously deep voice, which blared like a Boston Harbor foghorn, she roared at the speaker: “Frederick, is God dead?”

The startled Douglass, usually quick to retort to hecklers, was momentarily silenced; the equally surprised audience was the first to recover, and an avalanche of applause swept away the despair which had enveloped the hall. Sojourner Truth had saved the day.

Although virtually ignored by history, this black woman left an indelible imprint on her America despite a series of tremendous handicaps. Born as the slave Isabella, she never learned to read or write during a lifetime of at least 86 years (some authorities believe she live to the age of 106). Ridiculed for her awkward, homely appearance, she was sold five times as a slave, and until the day of her death, November 26, 1883, she had to contend with severe poverty and persecution. But she had a rebellious spirit that surmounted all obstacles. It was this insurgency which finally brought her freedom and led her to adopt the name Sojourner Truthbecause of her self-appointed role as a traveler, or sojourner, to tell the truth about the degradation of slavery.

Even when, as a 10-year-old child, she was beaten by her owner, John Nealy, with such severity that she bore the scars the rest of her life, she became more rebellious instead of less so. Although she was small and sickly, the 200-pound Nealy thought it wise to tie little Isabella’s hands before beating her.

In times like this her refuge was a queer mixture of stubborn revolt against the cruelty of slavery and a deep religiosity, inherited from her mother, which bordered on mysticism. These were the driving—and sometimes conflicting—inner forces which drove this remarkable woman throughout her life.

The misfortunes of slavery, poverty, contumely and cruelty she believed to be the penalty for not having been as good a Christian as she should have been. But at the same time the burdens she bore progressively deepened her yearning to devote her life to helping to abolish slavery. When the third of her owners, John Dumont, sold Isabella’s five-year-old son (who, there is reason to believe, was one of five children fathered by Dumont), Isabella determined to regain the boy—the last of her brood, since the other four children had already been sold. Barefoot and penniless she walked the long miles from New Paltz to Kingston, New York, to plead so persistently and movingly with the grand jury that it ordered the child returned.

The embittered mother called upon her God to punish the Gedney family who had sold her child and laughed at her protests. When Fowler Gedney murdered his wife, and his mother-in-law went insane, the devout slave was both convinced of her power with her God and terrified at the terrible vengeance she felt she had brought upon her persecutors. “That’s too much, God,” she prayed, “I did not mean quite so much!”

Shortly afterwards Isabella obtained her freedom under a New York State law passed in 1817, under which the last of the state’s slaves were to be given their freedom by 1827.

She moved to New York City and found employment with a well-to-do merchant, Elijah Pierson, and his wife. Perhaps as an inevitable result of her deep faith and the episode of the Gedney family, she became a devoted follower of a religious mountebank. This was a shrewd, bearded fellow named Robert Matthews, who had renamed himself Mathias and claimed to be a direct descendant of Matthew of the New Testament.

He was not long in getting Isabella and the Piersons under his sway and soon had wangled a large sum of money from the Piersons and an even greater amount from their friend John Mills. He then blossomed out in flashy robes lined with pink silk and festooned with twelve elegant tassels emblematic of the twelve tribes of Israel and ordered his followers to turn over all their worldly goods to him for the establishment of Zion Hill, in which, subject to obedience to his will, they could find food and shelter.

Mathias decreed that he and he alone should decide whether his followers were spiritually “matched souls.” If they were not, he ordered married couples to separate. He took advantage of his edict to “unmatch”one pair of his followers and assume the conjugal privileges of the displaced husband with his comely wife. The faithful and hardworking Isabella, possibly because of her color, was the only member of the “Kingdom” who was not mated or remated by Mathias.

Disaster for the “Kingdom” and disillusion for Isabella came when relatives charged that Elijah Pierson had been poisoned after turning over all his wealth to Mathias. Others charged that Isabella, on orders from Mathias, had attempted to poison them too; the evidence must have been rather flimsy, however, because she was never indicted. With Isabella’s help—she employed his counsel—Mathias was acquitted. Later she filed suit for slander and collected $125.

Mathias disappeared, leaving the aging Isabella disillusioned and jobless but determined to reestablish her good name and devote the balance of her life to serving a God who was not carnal and to fighting the slavery and brutality which, were the lot even of free Negroes. The ways of city life where “the rich rob the poor and the poor rob one another” frightened and depressed her. She quit her job as servant and set out “about my Father’s business” of arousing the country against the physical bondage of slavery of Negroes, the political enslavement of women and the curse of strong drink. It was at this point she adopted the name of Sojourner Truth, which she asserted came to her as a vision from God as she walked one day in Brooklyn.

She strode into churches and other public meetings asking to be heard. Despite her ragged, unprepossessing appearance, there was something about her flashing eyes, the resonant voice that rumbled incongruously out of a woman’s body, and her obvious sincerity, which more often than not gained her permission to speak. Although wholly illiterate, her amazingly imaginative and poetic speech had an electric effect.

In 1851 a women’s-suffrage convention was assembled in Akron, Ohio, which Sojourner Truth attended. Everything seemed to go wrong with the meeting. A number of ministers had invaded the hall uninvited and monopolized the discussion, quoting Biblical texts to the effect that women should eschew all activities except those of child-bearing, homemaking and subservience to their husbands. Alice Felt Tyler in Freedom’s Ferment tells how Sojourner Truth delivered the baffled women from their adversaries. She had sat for several hours on the pulpit steps listening patiently to the masculine filibuster. Suddenly she boomed out of the hushed audience:

Wal’, children, where there is so much racket there must be somethin’ out of kilter. I think that ‘twixt the Negroes of the South and the women in the North, all talkin’ ‘bout rights, the white men will be in a pretty fix pretty soon. But what’s all this here talkin’ ‘bout? 

That man over there say that women needs to be helped into carriages and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? 

I could work as much and eat as much as a man—when I could get it—and bear the lash as well. And ain’t I a woman? I have borne five children and seem ‘em mos’ all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman? Then that little man in black over there, he say women can’t have as much rights as men, ‘cause Christ wasn’t a woman. Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothin’ to do with Him!”

The disruptive clergymen were silenced.

On another occasion she quieted a crowd of hoodlums at a meeting in Northampton, Massachusetts, by singing, telling stories of slavery, and preaching until she had changed the mood of the mob and exacted a promise to leave. From meal to meal she did not know where she would eat or where she would sleep, but such hardships never made her doubt her mission.

Her chief and almost sole source of income was the sale of inexpensive photographs of herself, which she offered with the remark, “I sells the shadow to support the substance.” Sometimes she was invited to stay at the homes of wealthy listeners; as likely as not she slept the next night in a barn. Once her color barred her from finding shelter in any place except the city jail. This she refused and walked out into the country to find a hayloft.

Indiana in the 1850’s was more pro-slavery than otherwise, having enacted a lay forbidding entry of Negroes into the state. But man-made laws held no terrors for Sojourner Truth. 

She ignored warnings and threats against going into Indiana and managed to obtain permission to speak at a United Brethren meeting. Most of the overflow audience was made up of a mob led by a local physician. As she started to speak, the doctor shouted that she was an impostor, that in reality she was a man, as her deep baritone voice indicated. He demanded that she bare her breasts to a committee of women to prove her sex. Before she could answer, he demanded a vote on the question of whether she was male or female. By an overxyhelming majority the jeering audience voted that Sojourner Truth was a man. 

Angered, Sojourner Truth ripped open her dress, shouting above the tumult: “My breasts have suckled many a white baby when they should have been sucklin’ my own. Some of those white babies is now grown men, and even though they have suckled my Negro breasts, they are far more manly than any of you. I show my breasts to the whole congregation. It ain’t my shame but yours that I should do this. Here, then, see for yourselves!”

She found her fame growing and preceding her wherever she went. “I never knew a person who possessed so much of that subtle, controlling power called presence as Sojourner Truth,” Harriet Beecher Stowe said of her. Wendell Phillips, himself a great orator, declared that in all his experience he had never known a person so able to electrify and move an audience with a few words as she.

It was undoubtedly true that she benefited from the fact that many if not most of her hearers had never heard a Negro speak before; and came to hear her because of the novelty of the experience. But there is much proof that she moved even the curious, and that her speeches measurably advanced the causes of abolition, women’s rights and temperance. 

When the Civil War was imminent, she made her way to Washington where she was granted an appointment with President Lincoln. The two gaunt Americans found much in common in each other’s background of privation, and sat together for a long while as Sojourner Truth, abandoning her nonviolent creed, pleaded with Lincoln to enlist Northern free men of color to help fight the war. Time and time again she returned to the White House to renew her plea. Her arguments, combined with the manpower needs of the Union Army, eventually won over Lincoln and Congress. Sojourner Truth decided to remain in Washington. Here she worked night and day: nursing wounded soldiers and finding food and shelter for the homeless, half-naked, hungry, emancipated slaves who poured into the Capital.

The signing of the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the war brought her happiness, but put no stop to her journeying. She had by now become an almost legendary figure. Where once she had had to beg to be heard, she now was increasingly deluged with invitations to speak to state legislatures, conventions, churches, women’s-rights and temperance meetings. Hallie Quinn Brown, who knew Sojourner Truth during the latter years of her life, described her in Homespun Heroines and Other Women of Distinction

Presidents, Senators, judges, authors, lecturers—all were proud to grasp her hand and bid her godspeed on her noble mission ...  In her exhortations for the cause of justice for her downtrodden race, she rose to the greatest heights of oratory. Her African dialect, quaint speeches and genial ways won for her an ever willing and interested audience. Her witty sayings would have made a volume in themselves, had they been preserved. Her keen wit and repartee were strong weapons in debate or argument. 

But her popularity began to wane when she conceived and began to advocate a plan to settle Negroes on homestead land in the West. Already the North was turning its attention away from the distasteful days of the war toward the building of huge corporations and individual fortunes, some of them founded upon the exploitation of the apparently boundless resources of the West. The recently freed slaves showed little enthusiasm for her plan, and this puzzled and angered her.

Although her strength was failing, she refused to be deterred from her goal; she could not understand that this last dream of hers was impractical and even dangerous. She who had always fought to move her people into the main stream of life, now proposed to have them take themselves out of that main stream into a segregated and remote bayou. When despite her utmost efforts the colonization scheme in the West failed to materialize, she retired to the modest little home in Battle Creek, Michigan, which she had purchased with the aid of friends and from the sale of her photographs and of her autobiography.

Even in retirement, Sojourner never lost her fire, or her conviction that she had her own unique destiny. A last glimpse of this unquenchable spirit is provided by Hallie Quinn Brown’s description of Sojourner reminiscing over a long and turbulent life. A little girl who sat fascinated by the recital of apparently limitless history asked, “Sojourner, did you see Adam and Eve?” 

The aged woman smiled as she shook her head. Then after a pause, the old spark blazed again as she looked at death: “I ain’t goin’ to die, honey. I’m goin’ home like a shootin’ star!”