Wednesday, February 8, 2012

African American History Month - Sojourner Truth

Sojourner Truth - Abolitionist, Women's Rights Advocate

The following reminiscences were recorded by Frances Gage who was in attendance at The Ohio Women’s rights Convention, Akron Convention, Akron, Ohio, May 1851.
"There were very few women in those days who dared to "speak in meeting"; When, slowly from her seat in the corner she rose. She moved slowly and solemnly to the front, laid her old bonnet at her feet, and turned her great speaking eyes to me - I rose and announced "Sojourner Truth," She stood nearly six feet high, head erect, and eyes piercing the upper air like one in a dream. At her first word there was a profound hush.

Ain’t I a Woman?

That man over there say a woman needs to be helped into carriages
and lifted over ditches and to have the best place everywhere. 

Nobody ever helped me into carriages
or over mud puddles or gives me a best place . . .
And ain’t I a woman? 

Look at me. Look at my arm! I have plowed 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 to it–
and bear the lash as well

And ain’t I a woman?

I have born 13 children and seen most all sold into slavery
and when I cried out a mother’s grief none but Jesus heard me . . .

And ain’t I a woman? 

That little man in black there say a woman can’t have as much rights,
as a man cause Christ wasn’t a woman

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 together women ought to be able to turn it
rightside up again.


Sojourner Truth - Born: (c. 1797-1883)

Born one of twelve children, Isabella Baumfree in Ulster County, New York, she was freed by the New York State Emancipation Act of 1827 and lived in New York City for a time.

Around this time she had a life-changing religious experience and became a devout Christian. On June 1, 1843 she took the name Sojourner Truth which she felt God had given her and she assumed the "mission" of spreading "the Truth" across the country. She became famous as an itinerant preacher, drawing huge crowds with her oratory (and some said "mystical gifts") wherever she appeared. She became one of an active group of black women abolitionists, lectured before numerous abolitionist audiences, and was friends with such leading white abolitionists as James and Lucretia Mott and Harriet Beecher Stowe. She also became involved with the Women’s Suffrage Movement.

Some amazing statistics for a woman in the 1800’s – especially a woman of African descent:

- Before freedom she was sold three times: 1806, 1808, 1810

- She had five children -- Diana (c. 1815); Peter (c. 1822); Elizabeth (c. 1825); Sophia (c.1826) and Hannah who died in infancy. (Some controversy came about her ‘Ain’t I a Woman’ speech. In it Sojourner is quoted as having 13 children. Historians today primarily agree on five.)
- She filed and won a lawsuit to secure the return of her son, Peter, who had been illegally sold into slavery in Alabama from New York (1827-28).

- With the outbreak of the Civil War she raised money to purchase gifts for the soldiers, distributing them herself in the camps. She also helped African Americans who had escaped to the North to find habitation and shelter.

- In 1844, she joined the Northampton Association of Education and Industry in Massachusetts. Founded by abolitionists, the organization supported women's rights and religious tolerance as well as pacifism.

- In 1853 she met with Harriet Beecher Stowe in Andover, Mass.

- She owned three homes in all. Northampton, Mass. (1850), Harmonia village outside Battle Creek, Michigan (1857) and College Street, Battle Creek, Michigan (1867).

- In 1864, Sojourner was employed by the National Freedman's Relief Association in Washington, D.C. She worked diligently to improve conditions for African-Americans.

- In 1865, while working at the Freedman's Hospital in Washington, she rode in the streetcars to help force their desegregation. (90 years before Rosa Parks claimed her seat on the bus.)

- 1871 - Frederick Douglass signed her Book of Life while she was making rounds for freedom in New York.

- In 1872, she returned to Battle Creek and tried to vote in the presidential election, but was turned away at the polling place.

- She actually had an audience with two Presidents of the United States in the White House. Abraham Lincoln (1864) and Ulysses Grant (1870).

Age and ill health caused her to retire from the lecture circuit, and she spent her last days in a sanatorium in Battle Creek, Michigan. When she died on November 26, 1883, her last words were, "Be a follower of Jesus."

She is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery, Battle Creek, Michigan. Her grandsons, Sammy Banks and William Boyd, and her daughters, Elizabeth Banks Boyd and Diana Corbin are buried in the same plot. Despite her hardships she had managed to keep her family together.

Illiterate all of her life, Sojourner’s courage and candid, homespun way of speaking against the evils of slavery and the denial of women’s rights made her a major presence in her day. She still stands preeminently as the only woman of color who gained a national reputation on the lecture platform in the days before the Civil War.

A woman of courage and tenacity who believed she had God on her side.
Her life is a testimony that she did.


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