York Stater of the Month, January: Sojourner Truth

Antebellum Upstate New York was a place filled with passion, for new religion, for social justice and for the abundant economic and technological opportunities of the day. The characters of the day were just as colorful as the philosophies that created them, and none more captivating and challenging even today that Sojourner Truth.

Born in 1797 as
Isabella Baumfree, Sojourner was a slave owned by a Dutchman in Ulster County. Sold away at the age of 11, she lived under a variety of cruel to middling masters, including one who forced her to marry against her will another slave named Thomas.

New York finally outlawed slavery in 1828, but Sojourner ran away a year before that because her master (John Dumont, the same who married her to Thomas) reneged on a promise to free her a year before emancipation. She took with her an infant son, the youngest of five children she had with Thomas.

It must have been difficult for Sojourner, a relatively young, single run-away slave with an infant child, to set her self up in New York City. However, not only did she succeed in getting a job as a domestic but also in successfully
suing her old master for the custody of her son, Peter.

With this lawsuit, the illiterate Isabella Baumfree began to differentiate herself from the average citizen. She soon joined a string of religious communities in New York and Massachusetts. A devout Christian, she became a preacher and in 1843 declared that God had called her to bring his message to the world. She changed her name to Sojourner Truth and became an itinerant preacher.

Sojourner fought for the two great causes of her day: Abolition and Women’s Suffrage. Though she was sometimes accepted in communities, she often had to struggle to be heard: an illiterate female former slave was hardly the typical preacher. She also spoke out for prison reform, against capital punishment and in favor of Temperance. During the Civil War, she helped the 1st Michigan Colored Division and fought for the rights of escaped slaves.

After the War, she settled down in
Battle Creek, Michigan and worked for the Freedman’s Bureau. She died in Michigan in 1883 and is buried in Battle Creek. As a final salute, here is the text of her famous “Ain’t I a Woman” speech delivered in 1851 to the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio:

"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."

-Posted by Jesse

1 comment:

Parker Bohn III said...

S. Truth was a main topic in an episode of 7th heaven this season that dealt with racism.