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Women’s History Wednesday: Sojourner Truth

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Happy Women’s History Month! Throughout March, the Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office Museum will highlight a notable woman from the Civil War era each week. Join us for Women’s History Wednesdays!

Sojourner Truth (1797-1883)

“There was both power and sweetness in that great warm soul and that vigorous frame.” –Author Harriet Beecher Stowe

Sojourner Truth, 1864, “I Sell the Shadow to Support the Substance.”
Image Source: Library of Congress

Sojourner Truth was born into slavery under the name Isabella at the close of the eighteenth century in Ulster County, New York. Her early life was severely marred by this condition, which separated her from numerous brothers and sisters and caused her parents great anxiety. Isabella’s mother Betsey, or Mau-Mau Bett, was a spiritual woman who provided her daughter with religious teachings that she would carry with her throughout her life.

As an adult, Isabella married a fellow slave named Thomas, with whom she had four children. Although her master at the time, Mr. Dumont, promised to free her, he did not follow through, and Isabella left his home in 1827 with her youngest daughter. She was welcomed at the household of the Van Wageners, who were abolitionists, and Mr. Van Wagener paid Mr. Dumont twenty dollars for Isabella to work for him. She thus gained her freedom, which was soon after made official by the state of New York. Isabella was mobile throughout her adulthood and spent time in a variety of cities including New York, Northampton, Massachusetts, Washington, D.C., and Battle Creek, Michigan.

In 1843, Isabella changed her name to Sojourner Truth as a result of a religious awakening. She recounted that God had called upon her to preach the “Truth.” Sojourner became involved in religious revival movements and even a utopian association in Northampton. She traveled around the United States as a lecturer, which brought her into contact with other notable activists of the day, including William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, Lucretia Mott, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

An advertisement for one of Sojourner’s lectures
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Sojourner is particularly famous for a short oration that she delivered at the 1851 Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio. This speech, known by the title “Ain’t I a Woman,” concisely and powerfully advocates for the rights of both African Americans and women.

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?  -Excerpt from account of “Ain’t I a Women,” 1851

Sojourner continued her life of activism throughout the following decades. During the Civil War, she strongly supported the Union cause and encouraged men to enlist in the Union Army. Her grandson James Caldwell was a member of the famed 54th Massachusetts regiment. In 1864, Sojourner met President Lincoln. According to her accounts, the two had an amiable conversation and he provided her with an inscription for her “Book of Life.” After the Civil War, Sojourner worked for the National Freedman’s Relief Association and aided newly freed slaves.

President Lincoln’s signature, “For Aunty Sojourner Truth.”
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Sojourner Truth continued to speak and inspire others until the end of her life. She ultimately died at eighty-six at her home in Battle Creek, Michigan. Her legacy, however, lives on.

Unveiling a bust of Truth in Emancipation Hall, US Capitol Visitors Center, 2009
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Truth did not placidly retreat after receiving her freedom. Rather, she used her newfound independence to fight for the rights of groups that were marginalized and mistreated. In spite of her status as a former female slave who never learned to read or write, Sojourner Truth eloquently advocated for equal rights for women and for the abolition of slavery, as well as a myriad of other social causes. In spite of the trials that she underwent, Sojourner faced life with grace, dignity, and courage. Her ideals of equality have left a lasting impression on American society.

Don’t forget to join us throughout the month of March for Women’s History Wednesdays!

Sources Consulted:

“Modern History Sourcebook: Sojourner Truth: ‘Ain’t I a Woman?’, December 1851.” Fordham University. Web. 10 March 2015.

“Sojourner Truth (1797-1883).” National Women’s History Museum. Web. 10 March 2015.

“Sojourner Truth Institute.” Michigan Humanities Council. Web. 10 March 2015.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher. “Sojourner Truth, The Libyan Sybil.” Web. 11 March 2015.

Truth, Sojourner (Dictation). The Narrative of Sojourner Truth. Boston: Printed for the Author, 1850. Web. 10 March 2015.

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