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Sojourner Truth
A Life Led By Faith
by Thea Rozetta Lapham 1

Cartes-de-visite of Sojourner TruthSojourner Truth didn't have a web site. She never appeared on "Nightline," never posed for an American Dairy Association ad or held a conference call. And she'd never heard of a public relations firm. Yet she became one of America's most quoted, most outspoken black women role models for reform. Her secret? She believed her life was in the care of a higher power, she didn't believe in man-made limitations and she never took no for an answer.

In 1797 Sojourner Truth was born into slavery in New York state. It was a time when all women -- black and white -- were considered the property of white men. Women were not allowed to vote, to defend themselves in a court of law or to enjoy the basic civil and moral rights afforded to white men.

Yet one of the first places Sojourner Truth went, as a free woman, was a nearby courthouse in Kingston, New York. At that time in New York, it was illegal to sell a minor slave child across state lines. When Sojourner Truth learned her son Peter had been sold to a man in Alabama, she focused all her energy in one direction -- to secure the return of her five-year-old son. Sojourner Truth won that court battle, and several others, before her death in Battle Creek on November 26, 1883.

Cartes-de-visite of Sojourner TruthThroughout her life, Truth sought social change through peaceful methods. Her actions -- such as unbuttoning her blouse in response to at jeering crowd of men accusing her of being one of them -- could speak louder than words. But when she combined her actions with words, spoken or sung, the effects verged on extraordinary.

It was during the time that Sojourner Truth lived among members of the Northampton Association in Massachusetts, from 1844 to 1846, that her words and actions allowed her to perform a feat of near miraculous proportions. When a rowdy mob of "wild young men" threatened to disrupt a tent revival meeting she was attending, Sojourner followed the example of others and hid, "quaking in fear."

Hid, that is, until she remembered who she was -- not Isabella Hardenbergh the former slave, not Isabella Hardenbergh an illiterate and powerless black woman -- but Sojourner Truth, called to preach, called to testify, called to greatness. She said to herself:

Shall I run away and hide from the devil? Me, a servant of the living God? Have I not faith enough to go out and quell that mob, when I know it is written, "One shall chase a thousand, and two put ten thousand to flight?" I know there are not a thousand here; and I know I am a servant of the living God. I'll go to the rescue, and the Lord shall go with and protect me.

Oh, I felt as if I had three hearts! and that they were so large, my body could hardly contain them!

Sojourner left the tent alone and unaided, and walking some thirty rods to the top of a small rise of ground, commenced to sing in her most fervid manner, with all the strength of her most powerful voice, the hymn on the resurrection of Christ. 2

Sojourner's SignatureWith an emphasis on the lyrics, and little mind to the occasional flat note and lack of harmony, Sojourner continued to sing as the mob of young men surrounded her with sticks and clubs. But, instead of beating her, they entreated Truth to continue singing and tell them her story. According to the account in her autobiography:

She did speak; they silently heard, and civilly asked her many questions. It seemed to her to be given her at the time to answer them with truth and wisdom beyond herself. Her speech had operated on the roused passions of the mob like oil on agitated waters; they were, as a whole entirely subdued, and only clamored when she ceased to speak or sing. 3

Gradually the din of angry voices subsided and the only voice which could be heard was Sojourner's. Climbing into the back of a nearby wagon, Truth proceeded to preach and sing to her increasingly respectful congregation. Finally she struck a unique bargain with the young men. They promised to leave the site after one last spiritual and to allow the revival meeting to continue in peace. Then Sojourner rejoined her fellow worshippers under the tent.

Sojourner Truth had attitude. And she had faith. It took great courage for her to step outside that tent and put herself in the center of a mob of disrespectful, and potentially dangerous, men. Truth could have chosen the easy path and stayed inside the tent with the others. Instead, she chose to back up her words with her actions.

Cartes-de-visite of Sojourner TruthAnd throughout the rest of her life, whether it was to calm an angry mob of protesters, to debate an issue related to the causes she supported, or in her prayer life, Sojourner Truth made sure her words and actions worked together.

Seventy-two years later, following Sojourner Truth's lead, Rosa Parks refused to surrender her seat on a segregated Montgomery, Alabama, city bus to a white passenger on December 1, 1955. She was arrested and blacks in the industrialized southern town launched a year-long boycott of Montgomery's buses.

In 1865, one year after visiting President Abraham Lincoln in the White House, Sojourner Truth worked to desegregate the horse car system of Washington, D.C. At the time, she was working with the freed slaves who had crowded into Washington from the south after their emancipation.

Sojourner, inspired by Frederick Douglass and other famous and not-so-famous blacks, challenged the segregated horse car system. She often found herself ignored by drivers when she tried to get the cars to stop for her. And if a driver did stop, she would be told to sit in the Jim Crow car, the only car the blacks could use.

Unwilling to submit to this state of things, she complained to the president of the street railroad, who ordered the Jim Crow car to be taken off. A law was now passed giving the colored people equal car privileges with the white.

Not long after this, Sojourner, having occasion to ride, signaled the car, but neither conductor nor driver noticed her. Soon another followed, and she raised her hand again, but they also turned away. She then gave three tremendous yelps, "I want to ride! I want to ride!! I WANT TO RIDE!!! Consternation seized the passing crowd -- people, carriages, go-carts of every description stood still. The car was eventually blocked up, and before it could move on, Sojourner had jumped aboard. ...

The angry conductor told her to go forward where the horses were, or he would put her out. Quietly seating herself, she informed him she was a passenger. "Go forward where the horses are, or I will throw you out," said he in a menacing voice. She told him that she was neither a Marylander nor a Virginian to fear his threats; but was from the Empire State of New York and knew the laws as well as he did. ...

Sojourner rode farther than she needed to go; for a ride was so rare a privilege that she determined to make the most of it. She left the car feeling very happy, and said, "Bless God! I have had a ride."  4

Sojourner rode the horse car that day, and many horse cars afterward, sitting where she pleased, not where she was told. Her determination followed a lifetime of going where angels, and her contemporaries, often feared to tread. As Truth's biographer Carleton Mabee said, "Truth acted courageously for equal rights. She risked being humiliated. She risked her personal safety. By her forthright example, she encouraged other blacks to ride the horse cars and helped bring about a significant step toward equality." 5

One of Truth's numerous allies was well-known Michigan abolitionist Laura Haviland. It was in her company that Sojourner Truth was slammed against a door by an angry conductor, while she was attempting to ride the cars another day. She received a severely bruised right shoulder. The two women reported the incident to the president of the streetcar company. He dismissed the driver, the second conductor who lost his position because he refused to let Sojourner ride.

When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on that Montgomery bus, she had no idea her single act of defiance would change her life -- and the lives of countless others -- forever. And she certainly wasn't looking to get herself arrested or to carve her name into the history books. Her feet hurt, she was weary and she was tired of having the color of her skin be the determining factor in where she could, or could not, sit on a bus.

The situation was much the same for Sojourner Truth. Apparently she initiated her ride-ins without a master plan. According to Mabee, "She acted boldly, and with flair. She knew that because her name was known, she could focus attention on the illegality and injustice of segregation. She repeated her ride-ins often enough and over a long enough period of time to drive home her point." 6

Throughout a lifetime of challenges, Sojourner Truth refused to "keep her place," to be intimidated or ignored. She was a force to be reckoned with, a force with an invisible and mighty right arm to aid her in her campaign against inequality. Sojourner knew her fight was not hers alone. It was her faith in God that sustained her through her endless series of trials and tribulations. Her prayer life consisted of beseeching, badgering and belaboring God to deliver her from the evils of this world. She never doubted that her heavenly Father would indeed answer if she prayed long enough and hard enough. She expected His answers as one would expect morning to follow night.

As Margaret Washington, editor of the 1993 edition of the Narrative, said:

This perfect trust based on the rock of the Deity, was a soul-protecting fortress, which, raising her above the battlements of fear, and shielding her from the machinations of the enemy, impelled her onward in her struggle till the foe was vanquished, and the victory gained. 7

 

ENDNOTES

1.   This article is adapted from a six-part educational series, "Words of Truth," sponsored by the Sojourner Truth 200th Anniversary Committee, published by the Battle Creek Enquirer during the summer and fall, 1997.

2.  Titus, Frances, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth, Boston, published for the author, 1875. p. 116.

3.  op.cit., pp. 118-9.

4.  op,cit., pp. 184-5.

5.  Mabee, Carleton, Sojourner Truth: Slave, Prophet, Legend, New York, New York University Press, 1993. p.138.

6.  op.cit., p. 137.

7.  Washington, Margaret, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth, New York, Vintage Books, a division of Random House, 1993. p. xxix.

 

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