Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Speaking out against slavery: The story of Sojourner Truth

Sojourner Truth's life began around 1797 when she was born into slavery in Swartekill, New York. Her life ended November 26, 1883, when she died at her home in Battle Creek. In the intervening 86 years, Truth dedicated herself to securing equality for all races and both sexes. Her words were so compelling, and her presence so powerful, that she effected change across the nation, including in her adopted state of Michigan.

Sojourner Truth

Truth was born Isabella Baumfree, and was a slave for the first thirty years of her life. During that time, New York state was in the process of abolishing slavery, and Baumfree's owner said that he would free her in 1826, a year before the "official" date of emancipation, so long as she remained productive until then. He eventually broke his promise, saying that, because she had injured her hand, Baumfree was not producing enough to uphold her end of the bargain. Enraged, Baumfree bided her time, then escaped with her infant daughter, Sophia. She found refuge with a Quaker family, the Van Wageners, who "bought" Baumfree from her master for twenty dollars. Baumfree lived with the Van Wageners until the following year, when New York's emancipation order took full effect and she was free. The family also helped Baumfree secure the freedom of her five-year-old son, Peter, whom her former master had illegally sold to a slaveholder in Alabama. Truth's victory made her one of the first African American woman in the United States to win a court case against a white man.

While living with the Van Wageners, Baumfree became a Christian, and it was this religious awakening that led to the next phase of her life. The years Baumfree had spent as a slave were never far from her mind, and in 1843, filled with the sense that she was meant to preach about the evils of America's "peculiar institution," Baumfree changed her name to Sojourner Truth and traveled the country, urging audiences to support emancipation. Truth also adopted the cause of women's rights, and in 1851, at the Ohio Woman's Rights Convention in Akron, delivered an off-the-cuff talk that became known as "Ain't I a Woman?" Some controversy surrounds this speech because multiple versions of it were published. One version didn't include the phrase "ain't I a woman" anywhere in the text, while the most "popular" version (which was recorded by conference organizer Frances Dana Barker Gage and appears in the above link) contains southern terms and inflections that Truth probably would not have used, as she hailed from the north. However, regardless of what exactly Truth said, she delivered a moving speech that won over the hearts and minds of many attendees.

Truth's life in Michigan began in 1857 when she bought a house in Harmonia, a community west of Battle Creek. When the Civil War began, she traveled extensively, helping recruit African American troops for the Union army, as well as working at the Freedmen's Hospital in Washington, D.C. In 1867, she moved to Battle Creek and continued her campaigns, which now included an (ultimately unsuccessful) effort to obtain land rights for freed slaves. Truth also tried to vote in the 1872 presidential election (Battle Creek election officials turned her away), and spoke against capital punishment to the Michigan Legislature.

Truth's health failed in her later years, and when she died in 1883, more than 3,000 people attended her funeral. She is buried in Battle Creek's Oak Hill Cemetery. The state of Michigan has honored her by naming I-194, a stretch of freeway between downtown Battle Creek and I-94, the "Sojourner Truth Downtown Parkway." Truth was also one of the first inductees into the Michigan Women's Hall of Fame, and is the subject of a twelve-foot monument in Battle Creek.

Sojourner Truth monument, Battle Creek

While these accolades are well-deserved, Truth's most enduring legacy is the fact that, thanks in part to her efforts, equality among the races and between the sexes has become not an impossible dream, but a very possible reality. Truth wasn't shy about letting the world know that, through her efforts, she was going to change history. As she herself said, "I am not going to die, I'm going home like a shooting star."

Additional Facts:

*Truth spoke only Dutch until she was nine years old.

*She achieved all her accomplishments despite never having learned to read or write.

*When Truth escaped in 1826 with her daughter, she insisted that she had walked, not run, away. Her rationale? "I did not run off, for I thought that wicked, but I walked off, believing that to be all right."

*During a speech she gave in 1858, one of the audience members accused her of being a man. Truth answered the question simply by opening her blouse to prove the accuser wrong.

For More Information:

"Narrative of Sojourner Truth," by Sojourner Truth

"Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol," by Nell Irvin Painter

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