Thursday, March 1, 2012

SOJOURNER TRUTH - Women's History Month

 March is Women's History Month so I get to extend Black History Month by mainly featuring the History of Black Women during the month of March. I can't think of a better place to start than Sojourner Truth.


 Her age is approximately fixed because she was liberated under the 
act of 1817 which freed all slaves who were forty years old and upward. 
Ten thousand slaves were then set at liberty. Those under forty years 
of age were retained in servitude ten years longer, when all were eman- 

Isabella, known to history as Sojourner Truth, and without
a rival in the annals of the American Negro, was born a slave
of one Col. Ardinburgh in Hurley, Ulster County, New York,
sometime during the latter part of the eighteenth century.

Her experiences and those of her parents as to the cruel, harsh
and brutal treatment received at the hands of those who claimed
their service, the many whippings for alleged disobedience and
their abandonment when no longer able to be profitable as
laborers and the sale of others of her kindred on the auction
block by which family ties were broken, made it clear that
slavery in the North ^ at that distant day was not unlike what
it was two-thirds of a century later south of Mason and Dixon 's

Up to the time she was ten, Isabella spoke principally the
Low Dutch, while those for whom she was employed were Eng-
lish. Constant blunders were inevitable and whippings as in-
evitably followed.

The death of both father and mother occurred while Isabella
was quite young. The details of their death are pathetic in the
extreme. Isabella's troubles were of the common lot of the
slave. In course of time she married and became the mother
of several children. Among these was a son whose abduction
 and sale beyond the boundaries of the State, contrary to law,
fired her soul and she began that vigorous protest against the
.common practices of the day and appeal for justice that
subsequently made her fame national and opened up a career
that is not only unique but deserving of perpetual remembrance.

At an early period she became sensible of the influence of
Christianity in her own life. She became a Methodist and on her
removal to New York she joined the John Street Church, the
mother of American Methodism and later she attached herself
to the Zion Church in the same city, the mother of the African
Methodist Episcopal Zion denomination. By the purest accident
she learned that a sister whom she had never known had been
a member in the same church, but Sojourner did not obtain
this knowledge until after that sister's death, when she re-
membered having met this sister frequently in class meetings.

The circumstances leading to Isabella's removal from the city
of New York was her connection with what is known as the
Mathias delusion about the year 1837-1840. This led to her
giving up her own name and assuming that of Sojourner, to
which she added Truth.

From New York she went to New England where she ulti-
mately became an Anti-slavery lecturer. "Wholly without edu-
cation, advanced in years, her influence as a public speaker is a
marvel. Nature had given her a very acute mind. She was
quick at repartee, was thoroughly in earnest and her judg-
ments were shrewd. Her belief in God and that in due time
He would deliver her people from bondage was phenomenal.
These facts had much to do with the very strong hold she
had on all who heard her lectures. Many of the predictions
which she made became true in manner and form as she had
uttered them.

In those dark days at a meeting of anti-slavery men held at
Boston, Frederick Douglass struck in the minor key a most de-
spairing song. At his conclusion Sojourner Truth rose in the
audience and stretching forth her arms in a shrill voice ex-
claimed, ''Frederick, is God dead?" The effect was electrical.
By a flash the sentiment of the house was changed to one of hope
and assurance.

Sojourner did not hesitate to call on anyone whom she desired
to see, whether she had received an introduction to them or not.
Thus it was that she called to see Harriet Beeeher Stowe, the
authoress of "Uncle Tom's Cabin."

Mrs. Stowe who had company at the time evidently did not care
to be bothered with the quaint old woman, but she was no sooner
in Sojourner's company than she realized the superior character
of her visitor. Instead of abruptly tearing herself away from
Sojourner or rudely dismissing her as a bore she requested the
privilege from Sojourner of calling in her guests. This was
granted and all were made to feel the superior moral power
of this untutored black woman of the North.

During the Civil "War Sojourner spent a protracted period at
Washington in alleviating the sufferings of our sick. Sometimes
she was at the hospitals; at other times the "contraband" camps
then numerous about the National Capital, found her an angel
of mercy. Wliile here she called on President Lincoln, who
received her kindly. It was not merely to gratify curiosity
nor to express her gratification that such a broad-minded presi-
dent was in the White House, but to receive his commendation
on her mission as counselor to the freedmen that were assembled
by the thousands in and around Washington. In this capacity
she visited them in their slab houses, instructing women in
domestic duties, preaching the gospel of cleanliness and how to
maintain their liberty, the shackles of slavery having been struck
from their limbs.

In those days "Jim Crow" street cars prevailed in Washing-
ton, and it was with difficulty at times that colored people could
get seats even in them. Restive under this treatment, Sojourner
complained to the president of the street railroads and the
"Jim Crow" sign was ordered to be taken off, yet everything
was not plain sailing. The following incident deserves attention.

"Not long after this, Sojourner having occasion to ride sig-
naled the car, but neither conductor nor driver noticed her.
Soon another followed, and she raised her hand again, but they
also turned away. She then gave three tremendous yelps, 'I
want to ride! I want to ride!! I want to RIDE.'' Conster-
nation seized the passing crowd; people, carriages, go-carts of
every description stood still. The car was effectually blocked
up, and before it could move on, Sojourner had jumped aboard.
Then there arose a great shout from the crowd, ' Ha ! Ha ! Ha ! !
She has beaten him, etc' The angry conductor told her to go
forward where the horses were, or he would put her out.
Quietly seating herself, she informed him that she was a
passenger. 'Go forward where the horses are, or I will throw
you out, ' said he in a menacing voice. She told him that she was
neither a Marylander nor a Virginian to fear his threats; but
was from the Empire State of New York, and knew the laws
as well as he did. Several soldiers were in the car and when
other passengers came in, they related the circumstance and
said, 'You ought to have heard that old woman talk to the
conductor.' Sojourner rode farther than she needed to go;
for a ride was so rare a privilege that she determined to make
the most of it. She left the car feeling very happy, and said,
'Bless God ! / have had a ride.' "

Bronze Sojourner Truth Statue

Another incident is equally suggestive: "She was sent to
Georgetown to obtain a nurse for the hospital, which being
accomplished they went to the station and took seats in an
empty car, but had not proceeded far before two ladies came
in and seating themselves opposite the colored woman began a
whispered conversation, frequently casting scornful glances at
the latter. The nurse, for the first time in her life finding
hereelf on a level with poor white folks and being much abashed,
hung her poor old head nearly down to her lap, but Sojourner,
notliing daunted, looked fearlessly about. At length one of
the ladies called out in a weak, faint voice, 'Conductor, con-
ductor, does "niggers" ride in these cars?' He hesitatingly
answered * Yes — yes — ^yes, * to which she responded, ' 'Tis a
shame and a disgrace. They ought to have a "nigger" car on
the track.' Sojourner remarked, 'Of course colored people
ride in the cars. Street cars are designed for poor white and
colored folks. Carriages are for ladies and gentlemen. There
are carriages,' pointing out of the window, 'standing ready to
take you three or four miles for a sixpence, and then you talk
of a "nigger" ear!!!' Promptly acting upon this hint, those
white w^omen critics arose to leave. 'Ah!' said Sojourner,
'Now they are going to take a carriage. Good-by, ladies.' "

There are many anecdotes told that indicate her quickness at
repartee, humor, sarcasm, her original and quaint philosophy.

"As Sojourner was returning to the home of Amy Post in
Rochester, one evening, after having delivered a lecture in
Corinthian Hall, a little policeman stepped up to her and de-
manded her name. She paused, struck her cane firmly upon
the ground, drew herself up to her greatest height, and in a
loud, deep voice deliberately answered, 'I am that I am.' The
frightened policeman vanished, and she concluded her walk
without further questioning.

"During the war Sojourner met one of her Democratic friends,
who asked her, 'What business are you now following?' She
quietly replied, 'Years ago, when I lived in the city of New
York, my occupation was scouring brass door knobs but now
I go about scouring copperheads.' "-
( Northern sympathizer with Confederates during the Civil War.)

At a temperance meeting in one of the towns of Kansas, So-
journer, whilst addressing the audience, was much annoyed by
frequent expectorations of tobacco juice upon the floor. Pausing
and contemplating the pools of liquid filth, with a look of

disgust upon her face, she remarked that it had been the custom
of her Methodist brethren to kneel in the house of God during
prayers, and asked how they could kneel upon these floors. Said
she, speaking with emphasis, "If Jesus was here He would
scourge you from this place."

Previous to the war, Sojourner held a series of meetings in
northern Ohio. She sometimes made very strong points in the
course of her speech, which she knew hit the apologists of
slavery pretty hard. At the close of one of these meetings a
man came up to her and said, "Old woman, do you think that
your talk about slavery does any good? Do you suppose peo-
ple care what you say? Why," continued he, "I don't care
any more for your talk than I do for the bite of a flea." "Per-
haps not," she responded, "but, the Lord walling, I'll keep you
scratching. ' '

Sojourner was invited to speak at a meeting in Florence, Mass.
She had just returned from a fatiguing trip, and not having
thought of anything in particular to say, arose and said, ' ' Chil-
dren, I have come here to-night like the rest of you to hear what
I have got to saJ^" Wendell Phillips was one of the audience.
Soon after this he was invited to address a lyceum, and being
unprepared for the occasion, as he thought, began by saying,
"I shall have to tell you as my friend, Sojourner Truth, told an
audience under similar circumstances, 'I have come here like the
rest of you to hear what I have to say.' "

After the close of the Civil War, when more than four score
years and ten, Sojourner Truth, unlike others who had labored
for the abolition of slavery, discerned by intuition what men like
Phillips, Garrison and even Douglass, seemed not to compre-
hend — that the protection and elevation of the Negro lay not
through the exercise of the elective franchise alone, but through
the ownership of the soil and industrial education. She advo-
cated the location of the newly emancipated masses of the South
on the public lands of the West. To that end she addressed

meetings urging this course, in different parts of the North, the
West and the South, circulating petitions to Congress, and even
visiting Washington and endeavoring to create public sentiment
in this behalf.

It was during one of these visits to Washington, while U. S,
Grant was President, that the writer listened to her lecture at
the First Congregational Church of this city, where, in her
quaint and original style, she drew crowds to hear her, many
of whom had heard her in their youthful days in New York or
in New England.

Sojourner had foreseen that the cities of the North and East
would attract large numbei^ of colored people from the South,
and that the over-crowding of the labor market would react
upon the race in increasing the criminal element and in weak-
ening their physical stamina. But if they were settled on the
public lands of the West, there would follow careful economy,
regular habits of life, thrift, wealth, and ultimately political
power. She had, however, lived more than her three score
years and ten and was reaching the century mark. It was not
among the possibilities for her to take up successfully the work
of the new era which emancipation and its new conditions had
created. Her work belonged to another epoch, that of the
anti-slavery era, in which her service was as unique as her

Speaking of her death which occurred at Battle Creek, Nov.
26, 1883, where she had spent her last years, the Detroit Post
and Tribune says, "The death of Sojourner Truth takes away
the most singular and impressive figure of pure African blood
that has appeared in modern times." A most positive and re-
markable declaration, yet as true as it was emphatic and sweeping.

Another authority says, "Her mysterious communings with
what she believed to be a supernatural power, her strange and
weird appearance, her solemn demeanor, with her wit and eloquence,
her boldness, her unselfishness, her deep religious feel-
ing, that colored all her life and conversation, her earnestness
and truthfulness, make up a character at once curious, admirable
in many respects, and certainly unique. We shall not look upon
her like again."
Sojourner Truth Monument

This review of her career was made in an influential newspaper :

"The labors of this woman in behalf of the slaves and of
every class and condition of men and women who appealed
to her sympathy for help are too familiar to the people of
Michigan to need recapitulation here. She was the most interest-
ing of all the peculiar people of her race who have come in-
to prominence from the conditions of slavery. . . . Sojourner
Truth was too old and too much occupied by other matters to
set about learning to read when the time came that she might
have done so. Her learning was of a kind not to be found in
books, and neither her oratory nor her religion was fashioned in
the schools. Quaint in language, grotesque in appearance and
homely in illustrations, she was nevertheless a power in a meet-
ing, and there was no tongue whose teachings were more feared
than hers. There was a native nobility about her which broke
down all barriers. 'People ask me,' she once said, 'how I came
to live so long and keep my mind ; and I tell them it is because
I think of the great things of God ; not the little things. ' Has
any learned philosopher said a better thing than that? She
was brave enough to face ordeals that were almost worse to
her than death. On one occasion, while pleading the cause
of the slaves, the effect of her eloquence was in danger of
being overcome by a charge made by one of the audience that
she was an impostor, a man in woman's clothes. Her tall,
bony form, and heavy voice gave support to the charge and
the current was turning against her. She stepped to the front
of the platform and bared her breast to the assembly, telling
them it was their shame and not hers that such a sacrifice was
made necessary for her vindication. This is not so poetical as
the story of Lady Godiva, but is it less honorable to woman-

"There is not in all the annals of eloquence a more striking
passage than one in the speech made by Sojourner at a Woman's
Rights convention at Akron, Ohio, in 1857. The cause was un-
popular and one of the male speakers took pains to ridicule
women for their feebleness, helplessness and general uselessness.
The meeting was in a church, and at the conclusion Sojourner
rose up in her white turban from her seat on the pulpit steps,
moved slowly and solemnly to the front, laid her old sunbonnet
at her feet, opened with words that were thus repeated in a
local paper:

" 'Well, chillen, when dar is so much racket dar must be
something out of kilter. But what's all dis yer talkin' about?
Dat man over dar say dat a woman needs to be helped into
carriages and lifted over ditches and to have tlie best places
everjivhere. Nobody ever helped me into carriages or over mud
puddles or gives me any best place, and ain't I a woman? Look
at me! Look at my arms' (and she bared her right arm to the
shoulder, showing her tremendous muscular power). 'I have
plowed and planted and gathered into barns, and no one could
head me off, and ahi't I a wonvanf I could work as much and
eat as much as any man (when I get it) and bear the lash as
well, and ain't I a woman? Den dey talk about dis ting in de
head — what is it dey calls it?' ('Intellect,' whispered someone
near.) 'Dat's it, honey. What's dat got to do with woman's
rights? If my cup would hold but a pint and yourn hold a
quart, wouldn't you be mean not to let me have my little half
measure full? Don't dat little man in black dar say woman
can't have as many rights as men 'cause Christ wa'n't a woman.
Whar did your Christ come from?' (Raising her voice still
louder, she repeated:) 'Whar did your Christ come from?
From God and a woman. Man had nothing to do with Him ! ' "

"W. W. Story, the great American sculptor, first learned from
the lips of Mrs. Stowe the story of Sojourner Truth, and dubbed
her The Libyan Sibyl. The artist seemed impressed by it and
after his "Cleopatra" had been finished he told the authoress
of * ' Uncle Tom 's Cabin, ' ' some years after, that the conception of
another type of beauty in which "the elements of life, physical
and spiritual, were of such excellence that the dark hue of the
skin should seem only to add an appropriate charm," had never
left him. In one of the World's Exhibitions he has a statue in
which these ideas are worked out. It is called "The Libyan
Sibyl" and was a companion to his "Cleopatra." The London
AtherKEum thus described them :

Sculpture in The Metropolitan Museum of Art

"The 'Cleopatra' and the 'Sibyl' are seated, partly draped,
with the characteristic Egyptian gown, that gathers about the
torso and falls freely around the limbs; the first is covered to
the bosom, the second bare to the hips.

' ' Queenly Cleopatra rests back against her chair in meditative
ease, leaning her cheek against one hand, whose elbow the rails
of the seat sustain; the other is outstretched upon her knee,
nipping its forefinger upon the thumb thoughtfully, as though
some firm wilful purpose filled her brain, as it seems to set these
luxurious features to a smile as if the whole woman 'would.'
Upon her head is the coif, bearing in front the mystic urceus, or
twining basilisk of sovereignty, while from its sides depend the
wide Egyptian lappels, or wings, that fall upon her shoulders.
The Sibylla Libyca has crossed her knees — an action universally
held among the ancients as indicative of reticence or secrecy
and of power to bind. A secret-looking dame she is, in the
full-bloom proportions of ripe womanhood, wherein choosing to
place his figure the sculptor has deftly gone between the dis-
puted point — whether these women were blooming and wise
in youth, or deeply furrowed with age and burdened with the
knowledge of centuries. Her forward elbow is propped upon
one knee; and to keep her secret closer, for this Libyan woman

is the closest of all the sibyls, she rests her shut mouth upon one
closed palm, as if holding the African mystery deep in the
brooding brain that looks out through mournful, warning eyes,
seeing under the white shade of the strange-horned (Ammonite)
crest that bears the mystery of the Tetragrammaton upon its
upturned front. Over her full bosom, mother of myriads as she
was, hangs the same symbol. Her face has a Nubian cast, her
hair wavy and plaited, as is meet."

Another critic says:

"The mission of the Sibyl ... is not to lure men on to
destruction — she is the custodian of secrets, the secrets of Africa
and the African race. And how close she keeps them, with her
locked lower limbs, her one hand pressing her chin as if to keep in
the torrent of words that threatens to burst forth, while the
other grasps a scroll covered with strange characters, which
would recall much could we be permitted to decipher it."

As such. Art immortalizes the ideals which Sojourner Truth
suggested to America's greatest author-sculptor, W. W. Story,
whose Libyan Sibyl he considered his best work.^

3 "Story and his Friends," by Henry James, Vol. II, p. 70.


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