Hello and happy Wednesday! I missed a couple weeks, but we’re back and moving forward. I meant for this piece to be at the start of February…obviously it’s not, but I still want to start by giving a quick background on Black History Month, which is celebrated throughout the whole month of February in the United States. In 1915, Carter Woodson and Jesse Moorland founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, later renamed the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, to foster research and recognition of achievements by black Americans. The group held its first “National Negro History Week” on the second week of February in 1926, a week which falls concurrent to the birthdays of President Abraham Lincoln and famed orator and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, and the founding of the NAACP. By the height of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, cities nationwide recognized the celebration and many schools extended the week into the entire month. In 1976, President Gerald Ford officially recognized February as Black History Month, and we’ve been celebrating it ever since. Now into Women in History Wednesday – our WCW for this week is Sojourner Truth!
Born Isabella Baumfree around 1797 in Ulster County, New York, Truth and her family were slaves at a Dutch plantation. She was separated from her family at some point in her childhood, and sold to several different and increasingly abusive owners. In 1815, she fell in love with a slave from a neighboring farm, Robert, and the two had a daughter. Truth’s master at the time was furious, as any child that Truth bore with a man from another farm would not become one of his slaves, and forbade Truth from seeing Robert or their daughter. In 1817, the master forced Truth to remarry one of his slaves, Thomas. The couple had three or four children, but all except the youngest daughter were almost immediately taken from Truth and sold. A year before slavery was abolished in New York, Truth took her daughter and escaped the plantation in 1826, fleeing to a Quaker settlement New York City where they could find refuge.
Now a freewoman, Truth changed her name from Isabella Baumfree to Isabella Van Wagener, after the Quaker family she was living with. She worked as a house keeper for several families in the city, most notably those of evangelist Elijah Pierson and cult leader Robert Matthews. In 1829, Truth learned that one of her children that was taken from her was sold illegally, and thus she could sue her former master for custody of her son. She won the case, becoming the first black woman to successfully challenge a white man in a US court. Truth won another case a couple years later for slander that was committed against her while she worked for the cult leader.
During the 1840s, Truth converted to Methodist Christianity, changed her name to Sojourner Truth, and decided to dedicate her life to becoming an itinerant preacher and social reformer. In addition to the scripture, Truth spoke passionately about abolition, freedmen’s rights, temperance, prison reform, ending corporal punishment, pacifism, and women’s rights, especially in regards to suffrage. She became friends with other renowned reformers of the time, including Frederick Douglas, William Lloyd Garrison, Lucretia Mott, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, but was often considered radical because she encouraged an intersectional approach to solving social issues. In one of her most famous and most misquoted speeches*, “Ain’t I a Woman?”, Truth says that women’s rights should not be racially exclusive, which was a point that some suffragettes and early feminists and even feminists today let fall through the cracks.
(*It was unlikely that Truth would have used the Southern colloquial “ain’t” as a New Englander whose first language was Dutch. Also, the original transcript of the speech never had that exact phrase – it wasn’t until a printing in a Southern newspaper a couple decades later that the changes were made, and because that version spread to a wider audience, the changes stuck.)
During the American Civil War, Truth turned her focus from speeches and preaching to the Union’s war efforts. She recruited black soldiers in the northeast, and met with President Abraham Lincoln to discuss abolition and her own experiences as a slave several times. When the war ended, Truth took on the task of finding accommodations and job opportunities for freed peoples, working closely with the Freedman’s Bureau in Washington, D.C. During the Reconstruction, she avidly advocated for desegregation, especially in regards to public transportation, and for government grants for land ownership by freed peoples, as she wanted to avoid indentured servitude in the form of sharecropping and other Jim Crow systems of debt.
“It is hard for the old slaveholding spirit to die, but die it must.”
Truth continued giving speeches and working for changes in the legal system until she died of old age and leg ulcerations on November 26th, 1883. Her funeral, held in Battle Creek, Michigan, was attended by over one thousand people. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1981, and is remembered today memorial statues and plaques across the country. Truth released a novel in 1850 about her life titled The Narrative of Sojourner Truth, A Northern Slave, which is commonly read in high schools today and keeps her legacy alive.
I could tell you one thing that I find inspiring about Sojourner Truth, but her accomplishments and efforts shouldn’t be reduced to a couple words. If you search for why Truth is a significant historical figure, the result is simply “her work against slavery,” but that does not do her story justice. Sojourner Truth was a leading abolitionist, and almost every social reform that happened in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries can be traced back to work that she started. She fought for freedom, equal rights, desegregation, prison reform, justice, and so much more, with obstacles and opposition as a black woman in the era of slavery and segregation. Sojourner Truth did it all, and even though she could have been bitter about the atrocities she faced, she did everything with humor and hope.
Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for more Women in History Crush Wednesdays! I’ll try to be more punctual next week, and will make up for the missed posts.