This week I am finishing up the life of Sojourner Truth.
As the country prepared for Civil War, Truth continued in her mission of preaching and advocating for what she believed was right. She became a national figure and was able to meet with several sitting presidents.
Truth became a national symbol of abolition, women's suffrage and the ills of slavery. However she was committed to ensuring the betterment of her fellow former slaves and spent her later years working towards that goal.
Listen in as I discuss these and why she, to me, remains an important piece of American history.
Beecher Stowe, Harriet. “Sojourner Truth, The Libyan Sibyl.” The Atlantic. April, 1863. (LINK)
Fox-Genovese, Elizabeth. “Moved By the Spirit.” Washington Post. September 15, 1996. (LINK)
“Life Story: Sojourner Truth - Women & the American Story.” New York Historical Society Museum & Library. (LINK)
Painter, Nell Irvin. Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1996.
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Welcome to Civics and Coffee. My name is Alycia and I am a self-professed history nerd. Each week, I am going to chat about a topic on U.S history and give you both the highlights and occasionally break down some of the complexities in history; and share stories you may not remember learning in high school. All in the time it takes to enjoy a cup of coffee.
Hey peeps, welcome back.
Last week, we dove into the first part of Sojourner Truth’s life. Born into slavery only to emancipate herself and go through a religious awakening, Truth had already lived through several lifetimes before the Civil War hit in 1861 when she was nearing 70.
And though quite old for the time period, Truth wasn’t done just yet. So this week, we’re going to wrap up the life and times of Ms. Sojourner Truth. A bit of a warning, dear listeners; I am going to be quoting a few published profiles of Truth in this episode. As I will discuss before using the quotes, the authors took liberties with how Truth truly spoke in an effort to emphasize their own narrative. Growing up a slave in Dutch New York, Truth most definitely did not speak in the manner with which she is quoted, but this apparently did not seem to bother the writers charged with capturing her work. It can be a bit off putting and so I want you to be prepared.
Grab your cup of coffee, peeps. Let’s do this.
When I left you last, Truth was knee deep in her travels, preaching about faith and against the institution of slavery and to a lesser extent, women’s rights. However, as the 1860’s dawned and a new man was elected president, the country suddenly found itself in turmoil. Fearing the potential loss of their economic way of life, southern states began seceding from the union and declaring they would make their own country where slavery could stay in place untouched and free to flourish.
The president charged with maintaining the union and trying to bring the country back from Civil War was a quiet, tiny little fellow known as Abraham Lincoln. You may have heard about him somewhere. Though purposeful, Lincoln was anything but tiny, standing at six feet, four inches. And he was committed to trying to get the country back together as quickly as possible.
Seeing the war as an opportunity to finally rid the country of the ills of slavery, Truth joined the likes of Harriet Tubman in promoting the enlistment of black soldiers to fight on the side of the union. Supporting the union early, Truth made a trip to an Indiana courthouse to preach her allegiance and to suggest arming black men to fight for the cause. Not everyone was willing to hear her message, however, and Truth was arrested for violating a state law prohibiting people of African descent from entering the state. After some maneuvering, she was released after ten days in jail.
During the Civil War, Truth lived briefly in Detroit where she delivered goods and supplies to the Union troops. Having perfected her preaching through years of traveling and supporting the abolitionist cause, Truth refocused her talents in rallying men to sign up for service during the war. Truth was also an early supporter of President Lincoln, making several speeches on his behalf during his campaign for reelection.
Though well known amongst the abolitionist and religious crowd, Truth began to receive national attention and for lack of a better word celebrity during the Civil War. This is in part thanks to a series of publications purporting to tell her story. However in both instances, Truth becomes a symbol; a mere caricature of who she really was and what she stood for. Like so many times in her life, Truth was stripped of the ability to craft her own message and document in her own experiences. She was strong, intelligent and committed to her beliefs however in the hands of others, she was lost. On one end of the spectrum, Truth was a staunch abolitionist who opposed the fight for women’s rights. On the other, she was pro feminism and believed it the key issue. In reality, Truth believed and preached her support of both causes.
The first false depiction came at the hands of Harriet Beacher Stowe, author of the American classic Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Stowe, committed to the abolitionist cause, wrote an article for Atlantic Monthly in 1863 titled ``Sojourner Truth: the Libyan Sibyl.” In her flowery piece of fiction, Truth apparently shared her story of coming over from Africa with her mother and father and who found the lord while held in bondage. In Stowe’s portrait of Truth, she broke into religious song and sang quote, “with the barbaric accent of the native African, and with those indescribable upward turns and those deep gutturals which give such a wild peculiar power to the negro signing” end quote. Mind you, Truth was born in Dutch New York and likely carried no trace of African dialect.
In Stowe’s version, Truth did not understand the fight for women's rights and thought women simply had to only take the rights they were in want of. And in an odd decision, Stowe wrote of Truth as if she were dead. She inserted apparent quotes from Truth that carried a distinctive southern slave feel. For example, when covering Truth’s story about discovering her son had been sold illegally to a family in Alabama, Stowe apparently documents what Truth said quote, “Well, you know, de law had passed dat de culled folks was all free; an’ my old missis, she had a daughter married about dis time who went to live in Alabama, -- an’ what did she do but give her my son, a boy about de age of dis yer, for her to take down to Alabama” end quote.
The entire article quotes Truth in this manner, using vernacular she likely never used given her youth was spent in New York. Stowe was primarily interested in using Truth as an example to promote the ills of slavery and focused more on crafting a narrative that supported her ends than in crafting a true picture of Sojourner Truth the person.
Not to be outdone, Stowe’s 1863 article was followed up with another piece, this time written by Frances Dana Gage. Gage’s article claimed to contain a transcription of a speech given by Truth some twelve years after the fact. This time, the story of Sojourner Truth was to highlight the cause for womens rights. Again employing the use of southern slave venacular, Gage published a version of the speech that is today widely considered unreliable and inaccurate. Like I mentioned last time, if you know of Sojourner Truth, the chances are it is because of the fictional speech, known today as Aren’t I A Woman. In her article, Gage captures Truth’s apparent sermon on the need for womens rights by saying quote, “Dat man ober dar say dat womin needs to be helped into carriages, and lifted ober ditches, and to hab de best place everywhar. Nobody eber helps me into carriages, or ober mud-puddles, or gibs me any best place! And aint I a woman?” End quote.
Compare this quote to the one I shared from Marcus Robinson in last week’s episode and you can see why Gage’s version is troublesome. Unfortunately, Truth was at the mercy of those who wrote about her and supposedly covered her words, never learning to write for herself. This leaves a large gap in the historical record when trying to understand her as a person with multiple layers of complexity.
There was at least one upside to the publication of these profiles. Sojourner Truth, ex-slave and passionate preacher, was now nationally known. This meant she could sell more of her narrative to raise money for preaching efforts and pay off her little home in Michigan. By no means a passive person, Truth sought to reclaim her story the only way she knew how: portraiture. Due to advancements in photo technology, small portraits - known as a carte de visites (vezeet) were used like calling cards for well known individuals. These small visuals became highly popular during the Civil War and Truth - who could not read or write - used these as another means of raising funds for her travels.
But the pictures of Truth also help provide clarity for someone whose identity and story was used and abused to meet others' agendas. Sitting for at least fourteen portraits, Truth carefully crafted her images; simply dressed with minimal background, Truth tried to portray an unfiltered look at the woman behind the stories.
So despite the slanted and flawed portraits written about Truth, her national recognition provided her the opportunity to meet with sitting president Abraham Lincoln. As a staunch supporter of Lincoln, whom she referred to as a quote “daniel in the lion’s den” end quote, she was very excited at the prospect of meeting the man who freed the slaves with his emancipation proclamation in 1863. Fellow abolitionist and colleague Harriet Tubman was less impressed with Lincoln, not entirely trusting his motives, citing the pay difference between black and white soldiers as an example of his lack of commitment to true freedom for black people.
Coordinated by Mrs. Lincoln’s personal attendant Elizabeth Keckley, Truth and her white female companion Lucy Colman met with Lincoln on the morning of October 29, 1864. Upon her arrival, Truth was initially denied entry since blacks were not allowed in the White House. However, after some intervention and explanation, Truth was able to enter the mansion with her white escort. What happened next is up for some debate as Truth told a very different version of events than her counterpart Colman. In Truth’s version, Lincoln was ever the gracious saying quote, “I am proud to say that I never was treated with more kindness and cordiality than I was by the great and good man Abraham Lincoln” end quote.
She was ecstatic to have Lincoln sign her autograph book, where he made a dedication in her honor writing quote, “For aunty Sojourner Truth, October 29, 1864, A. Lincoln.” Can I just pause here and say how cool is that? Collecting autographs was popular during this time period and people were willing to affix their signatures to most anything placed in front of them, but still - Abraham Fricking Lincoln? I am a little jealous. Okay, moving on.
However, in her telling of the events, Lucy Colman paints a different picture. Instead of effusive and kind, she described Lincoln as stilted and uncomfortable, rushing her and Truth out of his office as quickly as possible.
Throughout the Civil War, Truth worked to aid former enslaved individuals and families by working with the Freedmen's Bureau in Washington, DC. In her post she focused on finding suitable employment for the men so they could become self-sufficient and stop depending on government assistance. This proved challenging since most slaves were not taught to read or write and had limited skills in the trades.
Post-Civil War, the district outlawed streetcar segregation in 1865, though many failed to follow the law. Truth, who needed public transportation to get around, faced a series of issues when trying to board supposedly integrated cars. Truth was dragged down the street while trying to board a car and was forcibly removed during another attempt at boarding, causing injury to her arm. Keep in mind, listeners, in 1865 Truth was an old woman - likely pushing seventy. In the exchange with the driver who caused her to injure her arm, Truth successfully got the driver fired and had him arrested for assault and battery. Mic. Drop.
While slaves were now quote-unquote “free” they still lacked access to the franchise, limiting their power. In this post-slavery world, the abolitionists and womens rights activists began to split and both wanted Sojourner Truth as their spokesperson. As a black, former enslaved woman, Truth represented both fights all in one. She tried to stay neutral, as she supported both causes equally. For Truth, suffrage was a way to achieve equality and financial independence and she believed the vote should be for women and men, regardless of skin color. Others, like Frederick Douglass, thought it important to secure the rights available at the moment and not hold out for universal suffrage which would include women.
Truth was eventually forced to pick a side; either she would turn her back on the efforts at reconstruction and securing the franchise for black men and dedicate all her efforts to the work of women’s suffrage or she would support the small, but substantial step of securing the right to vote for at least some of her fellow americans. Truth, perhaps trying to be pragmatic and understanding that progress happens in small steps, chose to support the organization that fought for the right to vote - regardless of sex - and backed the American Woman Suffrage Association.
Another mission close to Truth’s heart was the resettlement of formerly enslaved individuals. While she was not as successful as she’d hoped in finding new employment for former slaves, Truth believed she could improve their lives if she was able to relocate them west. In the west, Truth believed, becoming a land owner would provide an opportunity for newly freed black families to make their own way in the world.
Looking to the reservation system employed by the United States in rehousing the various indigenous tribes, Truth sought out support for a similar option for freed slaves. Working with fellow abolitionists, Truth created a petition to submit to congress, quote: “ To the Senate and House of Representatives, in Congress assembled: Whereas, through the faithful and earnest representations of Sojourner Truth (who has personally investigated the matter), we believe that the freed colored people in and about Washington, dependent upon Government for support, would be greatly benefitted and might become useful citizens by being placed in a position to support themselves.
We. the undersigned, therefore earnestly request your Honorable Body to set apart for them a portion of the public land in the West, and erect buildings thereon for the aged and infirm, and otherwise so to legislate as to secure the desired results.” end quote.
Truth traveled the country trying to drum up support for the petition, paying her way through selling her portraits and copies of her narrative. Starting her tour in Rhode Island in February 1870, Truth spent almost the entire year on the road. And I do not mean to belabor the point, but I do just want to celebrate and highlight that Truth was doing all this while pushing eighty years old. This was during a time when the average lifespan in the United States hovered at around 40, so 77 was considered ancient. She should have been at home enjoying her retirement, not traipsing across the country trying to establish a colony for newly freed slaves.
Despite her best efforts, Truth’s proposal did not gain the necessary traction and black americans were left with an unfinished effort at reconstruction, further limiting their opportunities and chances for success for several future generations.
It seems as though Truth finally calmed down a bit in her twilight years, though she did meet both president Andrew Johnson and Ulysses S Grant before she passed away on November 26, 1883. Her supposed last words were quote: “Be a follower of the lord Jesus.”
Truth was celebrated in death, with a large funeral held in the Congregational Presbyterian Church. Frederick Douglass, her contemporary and fellow abolitionist whom she didn’t always see eye to eye with eulogized her saying quote: “Distinguished for insight into human nature, remarkable for independence and courageous self assertion, devoted to the welfare of her race, she has been for the last forty years an object of respect and admiration to social reformers everywhere.”
I think that captures it quite nicely.
For me, Sojourner Truth represents a woman who was born into a world at a deficit and chose to persevere and stay true to her ideals. She refused to bow down to those whom she was told were her superior. Whether it was suing a white man who illegally sold her son or getting a violent street car conductor fired, Truth refused to allow the circumstances she was born into to limit her abilities. And for that, she will always remain one of my favorite women in history.
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Thanks peeps. See you next week.