The Secret Life of Sojourner Truth

BlogHer Original Post

I wanted to write about the anniversary of Sojourner Truth's "Ain't I A Woman?" speech. As I started my research, I discovered that she had lived for many years in a Utopian community not far from where I was raised and now live. And there wasn't one whisper about it during my entire school years here. She had two historical stripes against her where history books were concerned -- she was black, and she was a woman.

I asked several other women in my town if they knew she had lived near here. None of them know that. Yet, in 2001 a monument was put up to her in Florence, Massachusetts, a mere 20 minutes away. A friend and I drove up to see it last week, and she took this picture.

In 1851, at the Woman's Convention in Akron, Ohio, Sojourner, a former slave, delivered some version of her famous speech. I say "some version" because the original was not ever written down. Sojourner spoke extemporaneously, and there are differing accounts of the speech -- most notably of her dialect and the number of her children. But all agree that she did speak powerfully and memorably.

But before we see the speech, learn with me what our history books did not tell us. She deserves our attention.

Sojourner was born into slavery as Isabella Baumfree. Later, while held as a slave by the Dumont family, she married a fellow slave and had five children. She escaped with her daughter, Sophia, and worked for a Quaker family, the Van Wagenens, taking their name. She traced one of her children that had been sold down to Alabama. She was able to sue for his return to her as he had been emancipated in NY earlier.

In 1843 she took a new name, self-given -- Sojourner Truth -- and began to travel as an itinerant preacher and abolitionist.

The Massachusetts Sojourner Truth Memorial website adds:

After several months of traveling, Truth was encouraged by friends to go to the Northampton Association, which had been founded in 1841 as a cooperative community dedicated to abolitionism, pacifism, equality and the betterment of human life. There, she met progressive thinkers like William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass and David Ruggles, and the local abolitionists Samuel Hill, George Benson and Olive Gilbert. Douglass described her at the time as “a strange compound of wit and wisdom, of wild enthusiasm and flintlike common sense.

After the community shut down, she bought a house in town. Although she neither read nor wrote, in 1850 she composed a book of memoirs with a ghost writer called The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave (which is still in print).

In the late 1850s she moved to a Quaker community in Michigan, then after the Emancipation Proclamation, she moved to Washington, D.C. to work with former slaves in the government created Freedman’s Village. (If you do not know about Freedman's Village, click the link, please! That is another "historical secret". )

While the Civil War was still going on, she collected food and clothing for black regiments. She even met with Abraham Lincoln at the White House in 1864. While there, she challenged the racial discrimination that segregated street cars by just getting on them and riding.

After the war ended, she tried to organize efforts to provide jobs for black refugees from the war.

She then moved back to Michigan. That state has a memorial to her and a fine timeline of her life.

From that timeline, I learned that she was tireless in her campaigns for human rights until her death. She not only also campaigned for a woman's right to vote, she was the first woman to vote in a Michigan state election. She advocated for land grants in the West for former slaves. She spoke against capital punishment. She was pro-temperance.

Sojourner was almost six feet tall and had a deep and nuanced voice and a naturally commanding presence. It is easy to imagine how she held the crowd's attention with her direct words at the 1851 Women's Convention, in Akron, Ohio, 159 years ago. She stood quietly behind the podium and then spoke:

Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter. I think that 'twixt the Negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what's all this here talking about?

That man over there says that women need 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? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! 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 thirteen children, and seen most 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 they talk about this thing in the head; what's this they call it? [member of audience whispers, "intellect"] That's it, honey. What's that got to do with women's rights or Negroes' rights? If my cup won't hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn't you be mean not to let me have my little half measure full?

Then that little man in black there, he says 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 nothing to do with Him.

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! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.

Obliged to you for hearing me, and now old Sojourner ain't got nothing more to say.

I also found this speech, a later vintage, but also worth knowing about. I add it here as a "bonus track."

There is a great stir about colored men getting their rights, but not a word about the colored women; and if colored men get their rights, and not colored women theirs, you see the colored men will be masters over the women, and it will be just as bad as it was before. So I am for keeping the thing going while things are stirring; because if we wait till it is still, it will take a great while to get it going again. -- Equal Rights Convention, New York, 1867

This tireless campaigner for justice is a role model for all women. It is both tragic and shameful that she has been so neglected in history books. So, talk her up. Ask women around you if they know of her. Get stirred up about telling our children who she was. As she said -- "keep the thing going while things are stirring."

~~ Contributing Editor, Mata H. also blogs right along at Time's Fool

Photo used with permission of SGogal.


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