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What would you do if you looked out at the world and saw that it was not right? Sojourner Truth traveled the land and called injustice out. Folks listened.
In 1851, in Akron, Ohio, feminists from all over the United States gathered for a "women's rights" convention. The most prominent white female speakers of the day shared the dais and, one after another, advocated for women's suffrage – the right to vote. Then, unexpectedly, a short, middle-aged black woman took the stage. She'd been invited by Time Traveler Tours #HistoryHero Frances Dana Barker Gage, one of the organizers of the event.
Murmurs throughout the hall betrayed that many in the audience were incredulous: What could an old black woman, surely illiterate and uneducated, contribute to the meeting? Yet, the moment Sojourner Truth began to speak, the audience fell silent.
"I have plowed and reaped and husked and chopped and mowed, and can any man do more than that?" Sojourner asked. "I can carry as much as any man, and can eat as much too, if I can get it."
The world had been introduced to the power and presence of Sojourner Truth.
Sojourner Truth was born into slavery in New York State around 1797. Her master gave her the name Isabella. When he died, she was auctioned off along with his sheep and cattle. She was not yet 10.
In 1827, New York State abolished slavery and declared Isabella and other former enslaved people to be free. Isabella was then 30 and had several children. Her master, angry at losing his property, sold her five-year-old son Peter to an Alabama plantation. The sale was illegal under New York's new law, but no one, least of all the former slave-holder, believed an illiterate black woman would stand up to a white man and defend her rights.
They were wrong.
With the help of a Quaker friend, Isabella walked to the nearest Court House in Kingston, NY. Before a sea of white faces, she declared her legal right to file a complaint against her former owner. At first the all-white, all-male jury ignored her. A few even laughed at her. But Isabella stayed put and continued to demand the rightful return of her son. Eventually, just to get rid of her, the jury granted Isabella a writ, recognizing that her former master had acted illegally. But it did not get her son back. So Isabella turned to the Quakers again, who helped her to raise money for a lawyer. Peter was eventually brought home and reunited with his mother.
Now free, Isabella felt compelled to create a new identity separate from the one forced upon her by her enslavement. A devout evangelical Christian, she renamed herself Sojourner Truth, meaning ‘a wanderer who tells the truth’ and she began attending religious festivals and camp meetings throughout the US to speak out against slavery and discrimination. She was often the only person of color at these meetings, which was terrifying, even in the North. But the truth and her voice became Sojourner's staff and shield. It is said that at one service, a group of angry young men heckled her and the other preachers, threatening to burn down the meeting. But the power of Soujourner’s words were enough to silence even them; when it was her turn to speak, they quieted and sat down to join the service.
Sojourner's passion, fearlessness, and honesty as a speaker brought her a celebrity equal to the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass. That's how she came to speak at the 1851 Akron, Ohio "women's rights" convention. That same year, sympathetic white friends helped her write an autobiography, which sold so well she was able to buy a home.
Despite her popularity, Sojourner faced continued opposition and violence as a black woman. At one meeting in Indiana in 1858, a group of men tried to discredit Sojourner, claiming she was a man in disguise. Sojourner simply bared her breasts before the rapt audience, again silencing her critics.
Her religious outlook and simple manner of speech allowed her to connect easily with black Americans to whom she remained devoted. After the end of the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln's death, Sojourner joined Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler at the Freedman's Bureau in Virginia to educate and advocate for newly emancipated black families. Even in her 70s, Sojourner continued to travel and speak out against the evils of racially motivated injustice. She campaigned tirelessly for land to be granted to former slaves, visiting the free black farming communities of Kansas that she hoped could serve as a model.
In 1883, Sojourner Truth's epic presence faded as she passed away in Battle Creek, Michigan.
With her wit, courage, and eloquent use of simple language, Sojourner Truth skewered the racism of her day and forced the world to recognize her as one of the greatest speakers in American history. That’s why we’re honored to call her a Time Traveler Tours #HistoryHero on this our second post of Black History Month 2018.