Voices of the Civil War Episode 21: “Sojourner Truth”

Voices of the Civil War Episode 21: “Sojourner Truth”

The women’s rights movement in America was
directly influenced by the work of the abolitionist movement. Nearly all women’s rights advocates
supported abolition, however not all abolitionists supported a woman’s right to engage herself
in political activity. Responding to the attempted silencing of women at antislavery conventions,
and the expectation that they stay at home caring for their children, women’s rights
advocates like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucrecia Mott organized the first women’s
rights convention at Seneca Falls, NY in 1848, and asked American women to consider whether
they too felt in some sense enslaved. *** By 1863, the abolitionist and women’s rights
advocate Sojourner Truth had spent more than twenty years speaking out against slavery,
and her health had seriously declined. At the time President Lincoln issued the Emancipation
Proclamation, she was living in a basement in Battle Creek, Michigan. But news of the
Proclamation seemed to rejuvenate her health, and she mustered her strength to continue
her campaign for justice. “I mean to live till I am a hundred years old, if it please
God, and see my people all free.” (308) Born Isabella Bomefree in Ulster County, New
York in 1797, as a Dutch-speaking slave, she labored for four masters; in 1827, Isabella
took flight after her final master reneged on a promise to grant her the freedom she
had toiled for. She migrated to New York City in 1828, a year after the state completed
the official emancipation of its slaves. In the city, she worked as a housekeeper, joined
reform movements, and associated with an ill-fated Millennialist spiritual community. Referring
to the crowded city as “a second Sodom,” she left New York City in 1843. Upon her departure,
she informed her landlady “that her name was no longer Isabella, but SOJOURNER,” and that
she felt the calling to become an itinerant preacher. She was 46 years old, and had never
had a permanent home, so the new name became permanent. As her Narrative explains: “She
was now fairly started on her pilgrimage; her bundle in one hand, and a little basket
of provisions in the other, and two York shillings in her purse—her heart strong in the faith
that her true work lay before her, and that the Lord was her director.” Making her way across Long Island and up the
Connecticut River Valley, through to Northampton, Massachusetts, she began giving innumerable
speeches against slavery and on behalf of women’s rights, and kept audiences transfixed.
She stood five feet eleven inches, spoke in a low voice, and sang with breathtaking beauty.
One friend in her Narrative reported that Truth’s “commanding figure and dignified manner
hushed every trifler into silence, and her singular and sometimes uncouth modes of expression
never provoked a laugh, but often were the whole audience melted into tears by her touching
stories.” Truth’s accomplishments were doubly significant because she was not able to read
or write. Her considerable fame rested almost entirely on her speeches, her preaching, and
her singing. But in 1846, she began dictating her story to Olive Gilbert, a white abolitionist
friend, in hopes of matching the success of Frederick Douglass’s narrative of enslavement
and emancipation. The publishing of The Narrative of Sojourner Truth in 1850 helped publicize
her story, and enabled her to pay the mortgage on her house in Massachusetts. By 1863, she had resettled in Battle Creek,
and beginning that fall, after regaining her health, she spent a great deal of time in
Detroit on behalf of the war effort, and served as Battle Creek’s representative at the Michigan
Ladies Freedmen’s Aid Society. Months after the Detroit Race Riot of March 1863, Truth
lectured on prejudice to Methodist children at the State Sabbath School convention in
Battle Creek. “Children,” she said, “Who made your skin white? Was it God? Who made mine
Black? Was it not the same God? Thus get rid of your prejudice and learn to love colored
children that you may all be children of your father in Heaven.” In May 1863, feminist activist Frances Dana
Barker Gage published a revised version of Truth’s “Ain’t I A Woman?” speech, originally
delivered in Akron, Ohio in 1851. Gage’s version of the speech gained widespread popularity,
and became the version used in history books. Truth’s most famous speech lives on as a powerful
declaration of female independence: “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?” Despite her staunch support for the women’s
rights movement, Sojourner Truth eventually broke with movement pioneers Elizabeth Cady
Stanton and Susan B. Anthony when Stanton stated she would not support the fight for
black voting rights if women were still denied the right. The article that made Sojourner
Truth most famous was published by Harriet Beecher Stowe, the famous author of Uncle
Tom’s Cabin, in the Atlantic Monthly in 1863. Stowe dubbed Sojourner Truth “The Libyan Sibyl,”
and made her a national icon of the abolitionist movement. But the article was largely a fiction,
one that distorted its subject into a gullible and slightly foolish stereotype who spoke
in a crude and almost incomprehensible dialect, and overemphasized the naïve aspects of her
Pentecostal religious faith (Washington 301). “Mrs. Stowe laid it on thick,” said Sojourner
Truth (Washington 302), who refused throughout her life to allow the article to be read to
her. Even if Stowe painted a romanticized portrait
of her subject, she was right to understand religious faith as the cornerstone of Sojourner
Truth’s appeal. As historian Nell Irvin Painter explains: “Her ability to call upon a supernatural
power gave her a resource claimed by millions of black women and by disempowered people
the world over. Without doubt, it was Truth’s religious faith that transformed her from
Isabella, domestic servant, into Sojourner Truth, a hero for three centuries at least”
(Painter 4). Truth died at her home in Battle Creek in 1883, after spending years in a hard-fought
attempt to convince the federal government to provide former slaves with land in the
West. Though this particular campaign earned only limited success, Truth’s battles against
various inequalities made her one of the most important women of the 19th century. Truth was a keen and modest judge of her own
accomplishments: “I have plead with all the force I had that the day might come that the
colored people might own their own soul and body. Well the day has come, although it came
through blood. It makes no difference how it came—it did come” (Washington 298). Sojourner
Truth was a remarkable case, but the Civil War saw many female heroes. During the war,
American women threw themselves into public life with an enthusiasm born out of a sense
of duty. Nearly 20,000 women worked directly for the Union war effort, and more than 400
women disguised themselves as men in order to fight for the Union and Confederate armies.
Through various activities, these pioneers dislodged the idea that women were simply
expected to provide a clean home and nurturing environment for husbands and children. By
joining volunteer brigades, working as nurses, and campaigning against social inequalities,
American women were able to expand the prospects of female self-determination. Works Cited and Further Reading The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern
Slave. Boston: 1850. Painter, Nell Irvin. Sojourner Truth: A Life,
a Symbol. New York: Norton, 1997. Washington, Margaret. Sojourner Truth’s America.
Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009.


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