A Life and Legacy of Faith
(Written for the Sojourner Truth Institute of Battle Creek in association with the Historical Society of Battle Creek. Written by Mary G. Butler, with special thanks to Dorothy and Michael Martich, Martin Ashley, Michael Evans, Timothy Hoyle, Zoe Kimmel and Thea Rozetta Lapham.)
Sojourner Truth was perhaps the most famous African-American woman in 19th century America. For over forty years she traveled the country as a forceful and passionate advocate for the dispossessed, using her quick wit and fearless tongue to fight for human rights.
(Link to a four part annotated biography)
Sojourner Truth was born into slavery about 1797 in Ulster County, New York. Known as Isabella, her parents were James and Betsey, the property of Colonel Johannes Hardenbergh. As a child she spoke only low Dutch and, like most slaves, never learned to read or write.
About 1815 Isabella married Thomas, a fellow slave, and bore five children — Diana (b. 1815), Peter (b. 1821), Elizabeth (b.1825), Sophia (b. 1826) and a fifth child who may have died in infancy.
Isabella was sold to four more owners, until she finally walked to freedom in 1826, carrying her infant daughter, Sophia.
She settled in New York City until 1843, when she changed her name to Sojourner Truth, announcing she would travel the land as an itinerant preacher, telling the truth and working against injustice.
During the next several years, Truth lived in Northampton, Massachusetts, where she purchased a home, and in Ohio. She traveled around the east and midwest preaching for human rights. This illiterate ex-slave was a powerful figure in several national social movements, speaking forcefully for the abolition of slavery, women’s rights and suffrage, the rights of freedmen, temperance, prison reform and the termination of capital punishment.
In the course of her travels, she befriended many of the leading reformers and abolitionists of the day, including Amy Post, Parker Pillsbury, Frances Dana Gage, Wendell Phillips, William Lloyd Garrison, Laura Haviland, Lucretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony, and Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Truth supported herself by selling portraits, captioned “I sell the Shadow to support the Substance.” She also received income from the sale of her biography, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth, A Northern Slave, written in 1850 by her friend, Olive Gilbert.
Her grandson, Sammy Banks, accompanied Sojourner on many of her lecture tours. He could read and write for her and was an invaluable companion until he died in 1875, at the age of twenty-four.
Sojourner first came to Battle Creek, Michigan, in 1856 when she was invited to address the radical Quaker group, the Friends of Human Progress. The next year she moved to Michigan, buying a home in the nearby settlement of Harmonia.
Ten years later, Sojourner moved into Battle Creek, converting a small barn on College Street into her home. She lived there with her daughters, Diana and Elizabeth, until her death.
While she lived in Michigan, Truth continued her national human rights crusade. In the 1860s thousands of freedmen and former slaves fled to Washington, D.C., seeking safety and jobs. However, the federal government was totally unprepared for this influx. There was no place for the ex-slaves to live, very little food and no employment. Sojourner worked at Freedman’s Village and for the Freedman’s Bureau trying to improve their living conditions.
Maryland residents frequently came into Freedman’s Village to steal children. If the parents complained, they were put into the guardhouse. Truth learned of these kidnappings and she encouraged the parents to protest. When the camp commanders threatened to imprison her also, Sojourner replied that, if they tried, she would “make this nation rock like a cradle.”
She was very active in relocating the former slaves to western states like Kansas. Sojourner lobbied the government to give them free land and to pay their transportation costs to their new homes. She carried petitions with her, urging people to sign them, asking, “Why don’t some of you stir ’em [the government] up as though an old body like myself could do all the stirring.”
Sojourner Truth died at her home on College Street on November 26, 1883. Her funeral service, reportedly attended by 1,000 people, was held at the Congregational-Presbyterian Church. She is buried at Oak Hill Cemetery in Battle Creek.
The words inscribed on her tombstone, “Is God Dead?” came from an 1852 encounter between Truth and another noted ex-slave abolitionist, Frederick Douglass. They were both attending a meeting in Salem, Ohio, and Douglass had been speaking very despondently. A hush came over the audience as Sojourner rose and admonished Douglass, asking, “Frederick, is God gone?”
Her tombstone gives her age as 105. Truth herself encouraged speculation about her age, enjoying the added notoriety it gave her to be called the “world’s oldest lecturer.” According to the few available records, she was 86 when she died.
Her message (also read “Words of Truth” on our speeches menu)
Almost six feet tall, Truth was a striking woman with a charismatic presence. When she addressed an audience, her low resonant voice, especially when raised in song, could still the most hostile crowd.
Sojourner Truth often testified to the demeaning nature of slavery and the redeeming power of faith. She declared that her soul was “beclouded and crushed” while in slavery. “But how good and wise is God, for if slaves knowed what their true condition was, it would be more than the mind could bear. While the race is sold of all their rights — what is there on God’s footstool to bring them up?”
“But I believe in the next world. When we get up yonder, we shall have all them rights ‘stored to us again.” (Anti-Slavery Bugle, Oct. 1856)
But Truth was unwilling to wait to get to Heaven to have her rights — or those of any persecuted person — restored.
Preaching for racial equality, she asked, “Does not God love colored children as well as white children? And did not the same Savior die to save the one as well as the other?” (Sabbath School Convention, Battle Creek, June 1863)
Truth was not intimidated by convention or authority. She learned to manipulate establishment institutions to effect reforms. During her lifetime she brought, and won, three lawsuits. This was very unusual for a woman, especially for an illiterate ex-slave. She retrieved her son, Peter, who had been sold illegally from New York State into slavery in Alabama. She also won a slander suit in New York City and a personal injury case after she was injured in a street car incident in Washington. D.C.
Sojourner was legendary for her sense of humor, which she frequently used to deflate self-righteousness. She ridiculed the contrast between the earnest message of some of the women social activists and the frivolous clothing they wore. “What kind of reformers be you, with goose-wings on your heads, as if you were going to fly, and dressed in such ridiculous fashion, talking about reform and women’s rights?” (Narrative,Book of Life, p.243)
Probably her most famous address, known as “Ain’t I A Woman,” was made at a Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, on May 28, 1851. Sojourner asserted that women deserved equal rights with men because they were equal in capability to men. “I have plowed and reaped and husked and chopped and mowed, and can any man do more than that?” She concluded her argument, saying “And how came Jesus into the world? Through God who created him and the woman who bore him. Man, where was your part?”(Anti-Slavery Bugle, June, 1851)
Although Sojourner Truth was not an active participant in the Underground Railroad, she did assist many blacks who had previously traveled this route to freedom by helping them find new homes.
Keeping her memory alive (read”a Suitable Memorial” )
Frances Titus, wife of prosperous Quaker miller Richard Titus, was Truth’s friend, traveling companion, sponsor and lecture manager. She also revised Gilbert’s Narrative and added a Book of Life section. After Sojourner died, Titus published a final edition of the Narrative which included memorial tributes.
Titus collected donations and erected a marker on Sojourner’s grave three years after her death.
In 1892 she commissioned Franklin C. Courter, an art professor at nearby Albion College, to portray the meeting between Truth and President Abraham Lincoln at the White House on October 29, 1864. The painting depicted the President showing Truth the “Lincoln Bible,” which had been presented to him by the black people of Baltimore, Maryland.
When it was completed, the painting was displayed at the 1893 Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition. Later it hung in the lobby of the Battle Creek Sanitarium, where it was destroyed in the Sanitarium fire in 1902. However, the image had been preserved by Frank Perry, a local photographer, who took a picture of the painting before the disasterous fire.
Battle Creek is proud of Truth’s life and legacy and there are many local memorials and tributes to this remarkable woman. Beginning in 1897, a succession of clubs, societies and memorial associations were established in her honor. In 1935 a stone in the history tower in Monument Park was dedicated to Truth.
In recent years a marker was placed on her gravesite, memorializing her family members buried there (1961), May 18 was proclaimed Sojourner Truth Day (1968), the Calhoun County portion of M66 was designated Sojourner Truth Memorial Highway (1976) and a Michigan Women’s Studies Marker was erected downtown (1987, later moved to Kimball House Museum).
In 1987 the state and Calhoun County Bar Associations installed a plaque in the former Hall of Justice. The local club of the National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women’s Clubs holds an annual Sojourner Truth luncheon recognizing dedicated students and civic leaders. Afterwards, they gather at Truth’s grave for a memorial service.
A United States postage stamp was issued in her honor at the Sojourner Truth Library in New Paltz, New York, on February 5, 1986. Sojourner has also been installed in both the Michigan (1983) and National Women’s Hall of Fame at Seneca Falls, New York (1981).
In 1997 Battle Creek marked the 200th anniversary of Truth’s birth with a year-long celebration. The events culminated with a national Woman’s Conference, focusing on past and present issues in Truth’s tradition, and the publication of a special edition of Heritage Battle Creek magazine.
The continuing symbolic importance of Sojourner as a seeker after truth was recently recognized on an inter-planetary level when the Mars Pathfinder Microver was named in her honor.
Empowered by her religious faith, the former slave worked tirelessly for many years to transform national attitudes and institutions. According to Nell Painter, Princeton professor and Truth biographer, “No other woman who had gone through the ordeal of slavery managed to survive with sufficient strength, poise and self-confidence to become a public presence over the long term.”
(Painter, Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol, page 4)