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Profiles in Greatness: Sojourner Truth

Born into slavery almost 60 years before the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, Sojourner Truth found her way to freedom when she was about 30 years old. Tall, imposing, roughly eloquent yet illiterate, Truth became a much-sought-after speaker for the abolitionist and women’s movements during the mid-19th century. Putting her formidable speaking skills and faith to work, she was determined not to adhere to any party line, interest group or outlook. For her, African-Americans and women didn’t just deserve equal rights—they had earned them.

“Look at my arm! I have ploughed, and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could [outdo] me!”

Sojourner Truth was born a slave about 1797, in Ulster County, N.Y. She was known simply as “Isabella,” and spent most of her young adulthood serving a household in New Paltz. When she was sold away from her family as a young girl and beaten for her failure to speak English (her original master had been Dutch-speaking), she found solace in her faith; she prayed to soothe herself. It was a practice that she would eventually credit for her strength of character and presence of mind that so distinguished her as an activist and speaker.

Truth had five children, and she married a fellow slave in an unofficial ceremony in 1815. She bore the painful but all too common burden among slaves of seeing at least three of her children sold away from her before she escaped to freedom in 1826. The cruelty she experienced and her inability to protect her family inspired Truth to passionately advocate for the abolition of slavery and for women’s rights as she grew older.

Truth found aid from a Quaker family, the Van Wageners. Though they were abolitionists, the Van Wageners were considered Truth’s last owners before New York instituted mandatory emancipation in July 1827, so she was given their surname before moving to New York City.

Though illiterate, Truth was far from ignorant. She stood 6 feet tall, had a deep and powerful voice with a lilting Dutch accent, and was blessed with deep religious feeling and moral concern for her compatriots still in slavery in the American South.

“It is hard for the old slaveholding spirit to die, but die it must.”

Truth became a revivalist street-corner preacher while in New York City, and soon assumed the name “Sojourner Truth.” Though she never learned to read, Truth had a firm grasp of the Bible and its moral precepts, and she referred to them consistently in her speeches. Her faith repeatedly inspired her. She felt certain that slavery was destined to die as part of God’s larger plan.

In 1844, she met abolitionist and fellow escaped slave Frederick Douglass and African-American activist and printer David Ruggles in Massachusetts. The two men likely inspired Truth’s involvement in the American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS), which was led by William Lloyd Garrison, publisher of The Liberator, an antislavery newspaper.

Garrison pressed for the immediate abolition of slavery, and unlike some other abolitionists of the day, he proposed doing so through peaceful means. In accordance with her religious beliefs, Truth subscribed to the same peaceful tactics. She lectured to audiences all over the North and even as far west as Kansas through the 1840s and ’50s and was a much-sought-after speaker because of her rough and honest eloquence.

More than anything, Truth was herself when she took the stage. She was never ashamed of her lack of education, was willing to take advantage of the magnetism of her homespun speaking style, and was quick to drive home a point with humor, even going so far as to poke fun at the elaborate attire of her fellow activists in the women’s movement, contrasting their serious efforts at reform with their frivolous attire.

Though she admired and respected her friend Frederick Douglass, the two came to differ on method.

Douglass ultimately split from the AASS, believing that Garrison was too radical. Douglass also came to feel that slavery would likely not end except through bloodshed. When he suggested this at a rally in Salem, Ohio, in 1852, Truth rose to challenge him, asking, “Frederick, is God gone?”

“Does not God love colored children as well as white children?”

Truth is perhaps most famous for the speech she issued at a women’s rights convention in Akron, Ohio, in 1851, in which she challenged the increasingly popular notion that women should occupy separate but equal spheres:

That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages and lifted over ditches, and 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 well and eat as much as a man—when I could get it—and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman?

While the accuracy of the speech, as recorded by convention organizer Frances Gage, has been questioned by historians, Truth’s message continues to resonate because of her insistence, revolutionary for the time, that women could work as hard and well as men, and in that reasoning lay their claim to equal rights. Her own life was a testament to the fact that hard work and persistence could lift one out of the worst of conditions, and she felt she (and other women like her) had more than earned the right to participate as citizens.

“If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again!”

Truth’s public advocacy for the rights of African-Americans and women took her all over the country over the course of more than two decades, and when her deep voice and large frame led some to accuse her of being a man in disguise, she reportedly opened her blouse and bared her breasts to a crowd in Indiana in 1858. Her candor, fearlessness and courage inspired many.

By the time Civil War erupted in 1861, Truth was living in Battle Creek, Mich., and despite her age, she tramped around the state collecting food and clothes to support the raising of black regiments to fight on behalf of the Union.

In 1864, a year after he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, President Abraham Lincoln invited her to the White House, intrigued by her eloquence both on behalf of abolishing slavery and on women’s rights. He was likely also familiar with Truth’s dictated autobiography, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth:A Northern Slave, which Garrison had published in 1850.

In the wake of the Civil War, Truth became an advocate for settling the newly freed slaves in the American West, and while many freedmen did ultimately settle west of the Mississippi, there was never the mass exodus for which she hoped. Truth began to slow down, however, and she died in 1883 at the age of 86, in the company of two of her daughters and her grandchildren, leaving behind a testament to the power of language—no matter how straightforward and simple—to not only elevate one’s self but to elevate the thinking of an entire nation.

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