Sojourner Truth (1797-1887) was an abolitionist, suffragist, preacher, and social reformer. Sojourner caught the attention of many political leaders, and even President Abraham Lincoln was one of her admirers.
Sojourner Truth, or Isabella, was born a slave and remembers hearing her mother cry long into the night as she mourned the loss of her children who had been sold away. Isabella’s mother reminded her remaining children, “Oh my children there is a God who hears and sees you. He lives in the sky and when you are beaten or cruelly treated or fall into any trouble you must ask Him to help because he always hears you.”
Isabella was sold away from her parents and “married” to a slave on her plantation at the age of 17. After giving birth to five children, Isabella decided to run away, convinced that God affirmed freedom for the slave. She hired herself out as a house servant to a Quaker couple, and for the first time, she earned money for her labor. She changed her name from Isabella to Sojourner Truth because,
My name was Isabella, but when I left the house of bondage, I left everything behind. I wa’n’t goin’ to keep nothin’ of Egypt on me, an’ so I went to the Lord an’ asked him to give me a new name. And the Lord gave me Sojourner, because I was to travel up an’ down the land, showin’ the people their sins, an’ being a sign unto them. Afterward I told the Lord I wanted another name, ’cause everybody else had two names; and the Lord gave me Truth because I was to declare the truth to the people.
Truth felt called to preach the gospel. She traveled from Connecticut to Massachusetts preaching as she went. So fiery were her sermons, the farmers would leave their work to enjoy her skillful preaching.
The abolitionists Frederick Douglas and William Lloyd Garrison discovered Truth’s talent as a public speaker and they persuaded her to speak on behalf of the American Antislavery Society. Not only did Truth electrify crowds with her poignant wisdom and impeccable allegory, she eventually published her accounts as a slave.
Many of the abolitionists became advocates for women’s suffrage, as the parallels were endless. Sojourner was a popular speaker for the cause of women’s rights. When she rose to speak, her stature was imposing and her voice was powerful, with rich tones that none dared to interrupt. During a suffragist convention in Ohio, Truth gave what was perhaps her most famous lecture on women’s rights and her words ring immortal. She said:
I born my children and seen most of them sold to slavery, and when I cried out with a mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard—and ar’n’t I a woman?…Den dat little man in black dar, he say women can’t have as much rights as man, cause Christ weren’t a woman. Whar did your Christ come from?” As she stood there with outstretched arms and eyes of fire, raising her voice still louder, she repeated, “Whar did your Christ come from? From God and a woman. Man had nothing to do with him.”
Lest you think this uneducated woman was not theologically astute, this same reasoning is used by Karl Barth in which he argued that there is a subtle judgment on men in the birth of Christ, who was conceived without their involvement.
In 1864 Truth met Abraham Lincoln, who told this freed slave that he had been observant of her work for years. She was commissioned by Washington to work on behalf of the Freedmans Hospital, where she was obliged to ride the street cars. Anticipating the civil rights movement years before Dr. Martin Luther King, Truth challenged the Jim Crow laws which segregated the street cars by race. Exhausted by her duties at the hospital, Truth sat in a seat reserved for white people. The driver pulled her from her seat dislocating her shoulder. He was promptly fired, and after the ordeal, Truth had the pleasure of observing that the street cars “looked like salt and pepper on the inside.”
In 1887 Truth died having failed to secure a land act on which she hoped to relocate and employ former slaves. Her funeral procession was attended by a thousand persons: abolitionists, suffragists, and friends who recalled how Truth had served her country and said how happy she was “that the stars and stripes of the American flag no longer represent the scars and stripes of the slave.”
More on Sojourner Truth:
Celebrating Sojourner Truth as Extraordinary Also Means Lamenting Why She Had to Be