Michigan Days of Sojourner Truth
Originally published in the Summer 1956 issue of New York Quarterly (pp.127-135), this article outlined the Battle Creek years of the famous abolitionist. Here Berenice Lowe assembled, for the first time, comprehensive research on the work of Sojourner Truth between 1856 and her death in 1883.
At the New York Historical Association's 1955 seminar in Cooperstown, Lyman Butterfield was scheduled to speak. Dr. Louis Jones introduced him with praise for his accomplishments in editing the Jefferson and Adams papers. Mr. Butterfield's response was, "After an introduction like that I can hardly wait to hear what I am going to say." He was using a quip originated by Sojourner Truth.
Sojourner Truth is a legend.
She was also a fact. Born a slave in the State of New York, she was pure African by some reports, one-fourth Mohawk by others. She died in 1883 in Battle Creek, Michigan, which she had considered "home" for thirty years. Her birth date, despite the "Aged about 105 years" on her tombstone, was close to 1797. Her parents named her Isabella.
The facts about Isabella, freed in 1828, have been told in books anthologies, and magazines. About 1843 she started out on a public career, renaming herself Sojourner Truth.
In the New York Folklore Quarterly (Summer 1950) she was discussed as a folk-heroine. The intermingling of fact and fiction which constitute 'reminiscences" have not been brought together in previous biographies. To conjure up the legendary figure of Battle Creek's Sojourner Truth is the present purpose.
The famous colored woman was quite surely brought here in 1856 by Henry Willis, a Quaker. It was the Quakers of Battle Creek who established a station for the Underground Railway" to harbor escaped slaves on their way to Canada. They may have found work for Sojourner to do in this project. Casual newspaper biographies mention that this is so, but there is no proof.
The Merritts, also Quakers, accepted Sojourner into their home, where she was always welcome and frequently lived as nurse, domestic or friend. Charles Merritt had beautiful orchards and a huge blackberry patch from which he shipped fruit to Chicago and Detroit markets. To augment her income Sojourner was given a tray loaded with boxes of berries which she carried "on her head" to peddle them around the town. The late Minnie Merritt Fay remembered seeing a handbill which foretold Sojourner's coming with berries. Local housewives were glad to wait for her arrival as they knew the berries were the best to be had.
The Merritts entertained many of the abolitionists who came to lecture on anti-slavery: William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Philips, Parker Pillsbury, and others. Sojourner doubtless met them here or renewed acquaintance. She sat at table with family in the Merritt and other Quaker homes where she was respected for her philosophy, conversation, and dependability.
In Battle Creek's first City Directory 1869-70 she was listed: "Truth, Mrs. Sojourner (col'd). Lecturer. bds 10 College." She often 'boarded" elsewhere. Her son-in-law and daughter, William and Elizabeth Boyd, lived in the home owned by Sojourner, so that it was ready for her whenever she chose to sojourn there.
The plates of Olive Gilbert's Narrative of Sojourner Truth (Boston, 1850) were given to Sojourner. Mrs. Frances Titus, another Battle Creek Quaker, republished the book in 1875 for Sojourner's benefit. The introduction was written by William Lloyd Garrison. Mrs. Titus supplemented theNarrative with selections from Sojourner'sBook of Life as she called her collection of autographs and clippings. The second printing (1881) carried a preface by Mrs. Titus which shows in what esteem the old traveler was held. She was newsworthy. TheBattle Creek Journal in 1878 stated, "Mrs. Frances Titus and Sojourner Truth left today for the Women's Rights Convention in Rochester." Several references appeared in the same paper during 1877-8 to lecturing forays into Southern Michigan.
In 1871 she received a letter from Nannette Gardner in Detroit: "Dear Sojourner: -- At your request I record the fact that I succeeded in registering my name in th First Precinct of the Ninth Ward, and on Tues., the 4th of April, cast the first vote for a state officer deposited in an American ballot- box by a woman for the last half century. . . '' Sojourner returned to Battle Creek in the early autumn of 1872 to stump for Grant. If Grant were defeated, she vowed she would move to Canada. She tried to register but failed. On election day she appeared at the polls, making several attempts to get into the building to vote. When she was finally ousted she said they could at least show her "the pole." A guided tour of the place did not come up to her expectation and she returned to her home thoroughly disappointed.
During the early 1860's she was not well and was seriously ill in 1863. At this time she decided she was a sick old woman, through with causes. But as soon as she was up, she hopped into the fray again by rounding up a terrific Thanksgiving dinner for Battle Creek colored soldiers stationed in Detroit. For the next twenty years, except for a period of illness in 1875, she worked as energetically as ever. The Emancipation Proclamation had seemed to give her renewed vigor. With abolition behind her she worked as energetically as ever. The Emancipation Proclamation had seemed to give her renewed vigor. With abolition behind her she could work for temperance, women's rights, and freedmen.
It was probably during these periods of illness that her age advanced twice as fast as that of her contemporaries. Her Battle Creek friends, more than others, fostered the belief in her old age. She was a dramatic character and further dramatization in their pride was only natural. Mrs. Titus presents two "proofs" of her age: 1. Through the memory of a very old man who had at one time lived in Ulster County. 2. That she must have been freed in 1817 when slaves forty years old or older were emancipated. Gilbert Vail, who in 1835 published two slim volumes, Fanaticism or the Narrative of Isabella, etc., gives several testimonials that she was freed in 1828, one year following the general emancipation of New York slaves. He declares also that in 1835 she is "nearly forty years old." Except for Mrs. Titus,her biographers seem to agree that she was born about 1797. In theBook of Life is an undated quotation from a Boston paper which, from the subject of Sojourner's lecture, makes it about 1870; she is said to be eighty-three years old. Also from a Boston paper which, from the subject of Sojourner's lecture, makes it about 1870; she is said to be eighty-three years old. Also from a Boston paper, evidently on the same tour, Sojourner said, "Ef I am eighty-three. . . ."
So many people asked Sojourner her age, which she did not know, that she took to giving her age, which she did not know, that she took to giving her masterfully evasive answers. In one of her letters (dictated, of course, and guoted by Mrs. Titus) she mentions enjoying the little game, especially during her stay in Washington.
Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, director of Battle Creek Sanitarium, was her physician. One day he asked Sojourner her age. "Why should I tell you my age?'' she twinkled. "It might spoil my chances." On the contrary, when some teens-age girls, one of whom was Mrs. Leo Sheehan's grandmother, asked what she thought about old people's falling in love, she put on a lorn look and replied, "Me? Oh, I wouldn't know!"
her last years she gladly went along with the idea that she was a hundred. Why not? It kept her important; it gave her an audience. Although the old trouper may not have recognized it herself, her love of an audience was her driving force. Reform was her favorite subject, but secondary to people before her. Several days before Sojourner died, a reporter came from Grand Rapids to interview her. Already speech was difficult, but she perked up mightily when she was to have a fresh audience. The account appeared in the Grand RapidsEagle two days before she died. "Her face was drawn and emaciated and she was apparently suffering great pain. Her eyes were very bright and mind alert although it was difficult for her to talk." Sojourner's last words to her interviewer were, "Be a follower of Jesus." Aware of her audience to the last!
Interviewers and reporters tried to find just the right adjectives and phrases to describe her: they often confessed frustration -- she defied description. Here are a few of their attempts: Libyan Sibyl; oracle; bewitching voice; stirriing tones; voice low and masculine; regal; unique; pathetic; thrilling; exceptional intuition; philosophic; incisive; eyes with peculiar mystic light; filled with religious fire; half arrogant, half gleeful; keen edge of some shrewd remark; native wit, eloquence, religious pathos; conversation witty, sarcastic, sensible, oftentimes profound; wonderful woman.
During Negro History Week in February, 1947, Forest H. Sweet gave a summary in modern phraseology for a colored audience gathered to honor her memory: ''During the Civil War Sojourner Truth became a one-woman U S O. She called on Lincoln at the White House and remained in Washington to preach among the slaves. She was among the first to work for slum clearance. After the war she became a Negro labor leader and personally found jobs for many caught in the upheaval which followed emancipation. Then she called upon Congress to do for all freedmen what she had been able to do for a few.''
In 1921, Eva Warriner, writing on "Quakerism in Battle Creek" for the Enquirer and News, said that in 1871 the Quakers erected a new ''little white building in their burying ground on Fremont Street . . . A daughter of [George] Bradley [who helped build it] remembers attending the first meeting in the new house. Sojourner Truth was present. A period of silence was followed by 'movings' both of men and women . . . Nathaniel Potter, strictest of the strict, spoke. When he sat down, Sojourner, her tall Mohawk Indian figure rising up and up said, 'I have always loved the Quakers and would have joined them, only they would not let me sing; so I joined the Methodists, but I want to sing here and right now' and turning to Friend Nathaniel she asked, 'May I?' Whether the unexpected request seemed to call for an affirmative reply, or he thought she had an inward 'concern,' he very slightly nodded his head. Then Sojourner said, 'He did not say I could, but he did not say I couldn't, he just did this,' and she mimicked his nod exactly. Then in her inimitable manner and her full Negro voice, sang a Methodist hymn, one of her own composing. A daughter of Levi Pitman, one of the last of the members of the Battle Creek Meeting, remembers another of Sojourner's remarks at this first service. 'I also believe in the answer to prayer. Once there was a mortgage on my home and I prayed the Lord to send money to pay the mortgage, and the money came pouring down on my head so fast that I had to ask Him to stop sending it.' ''
Before Sojourner came to Battle Creek on the invitation of Quakers, the number of their Meeting was reduced considerably by the conversion of many of them to Spiritualism. Some of the Quakers-turned-Spiritualists established a community including a seminary at Harmonia , six miles west of Battle Creek. Sojourner had investigated many sects, sometimes affiliating for a short while. J. H. Brown, local historian, wrote in 1941: "She came to Battle Creek in 1856 and bought a house and lot. Some years later she was induced to move to the village of Harmonia where she bought a low, one-story house a few rods west of Harmonia Seminary. A few years later she moved back to Battle Creek.'' [editor's note: Later evidence confirmed that Truth moved first to Harmonia, then into Battle Creek in 1867.]
Almost nothing about Sojourners's manner with children has been published. Her relationship with her grandson, Sammy Banks (Samuel Boyd according to Oakhill Cemetery records, hence the son William and Elizabeth Boyd) received comment from both Mrs. Stowe and Mrs. Titus. But she loved all childern, and an undated newspaper clipping states that in her later years the children of the neighborhood gathered about her on the low porch of her home to be entertained with her stories. The late William Guest Merritt remembered her leaning over his bed singing him to sleep. " Her singing to me was a soft crooning.'' She preferred to have childern read to her as they did not try to insert comments; Sojourner preferred her own interpretation to that of other adults. Shehad a keen mind and a prodigious memory.
She often called her audiences " children'' as though they were less experienced than she. She used parable to put across her points. Many newspapers gave her credit for composing the words she sang to familiar tunes.
Two months after Mrs. Stowe's "Libyan Sibyl" appeared in the Atkantic Monthly, the Battle CreekJournel of June 112, 1863, carried a tribute that is rather unusual for a prophet in his own country. Sojourner spoke to children on color-prejudice, a subject that is familiar enough in 1956 but was a new espousal in 1863. The annual State Sabbath School Convention was being held in Battle Creek. "In the afternoon the children's Mass Meeting convened at the Methodist Church . . . .After several had spoken, a clear, distinct voice came from towards the head of the stairs, saying 'Is there an opportunity that I might say a few words?' The Moderator seemed for a moment as if hesitating to grant the opportunity, and, perhaps, he did not know the speaker. Rev. T. W. Jones arose, addressing the Moderator, said that the speaker was Sojourner Truth.' This was enough; five hundred persons were instantly on their feet, prepared to give the most earnest and respectful attention to her who was but a Slave. Had Henry Ward Beecher, or any other such renowned man's name been mentioned, it is doubtful whether it would have produced the electrical effect on the audience that her name did. She said that the spirit of the Lord had told her to avail herself of the opportunity of speaking to so many children assembled together of the great sin of prejudice against color. 'Children, 'she said, 'who made your skin white? Was it not God? Who made mine black? Was it not the same God? '' Driving home her point with two hundred similar words she closed with, '' 'Now, children, remember what Sojourner Truth has told you and thus get rid of your prejudice and learn to love colored children that you may be all the children of your Father in Heaven. . . . This short speech from Sojourner was perhaps the most telling Anti-Slavery speech that was ever delivered at Battle Creek or in Michigan. Scores of eyes were filled with tears and it seemed as if every individual present sanctioned all she said. . .''
Sojourner had no ''declining years.'' Mrs. Titus wrote, ''Since the war, her life has been one of activity. Now, in 1878, she oversees her own household matters, often gives three public lectures a week. Within the past year, she held meetings in thirty-six towns in Michigan. Her health is good; her eyesight, for many years defective, has returned. Her gray locks are being succeeded by a luxuriant growth of black hair. . . .She hopes that natural teeth will supersede the necessity of using false ones. . . .Her mental capacities are becoming intensified.''
Sojourner's carte de visite was a portrait of herself on which were the words ''I sell the shadow to support the substance.'' Mrs. Titus ordered her to have a new photograph taken. Though twenty years older in this second picture, Sojourner appears to be a younger woman. In both pictures, she wore Quaker garb, the bright turban of Mrs. Stowe's description replaced by a white band about her hair. The white kerchief was present in both pictures, but there were no spectacles in the later one. (Sojourner said, ''The Lord put new windows in my soul.") Biographers who never saw her have said she was bent with age. Not in the picture! She sits tall, poised, self-contained.
Mrs. Titus' book closes with this story: ''Sojourner was invited to speak at a meeting in Florence, Mass. She had just returned from a fatiguing trip, and not having thought of anything particular to say, arose and said, 'Children, I have come here tonight like the rest of you to hear what I have got to say.' Phillips was one of her audience. Soon after, he was invited to address a lyceum, and being unprepared, as he thought, began by saying, 'I shall have to tell you as my friend Sojourner Truth told an audience under similar circumstances, I have come here like the rest of you to hear what I have to say.'"
Lyman Butterfield is an associate through scholarship with Jefferson and Adams. When he chose his response to Dr. Jones at Cooperstown, he was still in good company.
[References were listed in the article except for the source of some of the quotes from Battle Creek residents. Some of these were found in Henry J. A. Wiegmink, Early Days of Battle Creek, which is on microfilm at Willard Library, Battle Creek, and in three historical libraries elsewhere in the state. A dozen of the late Mr. Wiegmink's scrapbooks, largely of undated clippings, are in my own library.]