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The Sojourner At Home
by Mary G. Butler

(Article first appeared in Heritage Battle Creek, A Journal of Local History, Vol. 8, Fall, 1997)

 

Her home near Battle CreekDuring the twenty-six years that she lived in Harmonia and Battle Creek, Sojourner Truth continued to travel around the nation delivering her message. In fact, she was gone from the city for many months at a time. But she continued to regard the city as her home and Battle Creek citizens were proud of their "distinguished townswoman." 1

Truth was a local tourist attraction and notable visitors were taken to meet her. During an 1878 visit, a Coldwater attorney remembered that the mayor "took me out driving, to see the sights of the town, and asked me if I would like to meet Sojourner Truth. Naturally I wanted to call on her, as she was then known all over the country, looked upon as a most remarkable woman." 2

Sojourner's Tobacco PouchHowever, Truth was more than a local icon -- she was a warm and loving person who enjoyed her circle of friends. An 1879 newspaper described, "this wonderful old traveler, ... [who] may be seen taking pleasure strolls along many of our beautiful streets, accompanied only by her grandson, these pleasant moonlight evenings, and ever ready to chat with old friends." 3

Sojourner was always a favorite with children. Mrs. Harriet Tucker, the child of escaped slaves, remembers that:

with us children she was looked upon as being a rather peculiar person. But I knew that Sojourner never forget a kindness. She came to our house often, and if I ever did anything for her, she always remembered it with a reward, no matter how small it was. 4

Merritt HomeTruth was a frequent visitor at the Merritt homestead. Richard Merritt recounted that, "Many times I have been rocked to sleep by Sojourner while she sang quaint Negro lullabies, as were the other children of the family." 5   Minnie Merritt Fay's earliest memory of Truth was of:

climbing into her strong arms and my little child's fingers loved to touch her skin, so delicate in texture it was. ... It is told that my baby brother would stop his playing whenever ... she would sing or "clap Judah." And, a fact that this same baby when grown signed the temperance pledge at her solicitation, and I am sure he kept that pledge as long as he lived. 6

William MerrittAccording to William Merritt, Sojourner was unpredictable. "When she made her trips she always declared that she had received a call, and none knew when she would be leaving or returning. She would just start suddenly away with few belongings and would reappear as unexpectedly." 7 As a child, Minnie remembered:

When she returned from her trips to Washington and Kansas she related her experiences to groups of friends around the table. I can see her seated there, taller and straighter than anyone else, her face always beautiful and earnest while relating experiences in her effort for the welfare of her people. She held the attention of the children as well and the grown-ups with her eloquence, wit and humor in meeting her problems. We loved to hear her talk, her wonderful voice was so deep and smooth. 8

In her daily life, Sojourner frequently acted on impulse, ever ready to seize the moment to enjoy a small pleasure. Mrs. Ann J. Cook remembered the day she was married in the parsonage of the Methodist Church. As the wedding party was entering the building, they met Truth on her way out.

As quick as a flash, Sojourner knew what the couple was up to. "I'm going back and see you folks get married." she said. In a few moments the ceremony was performed, and Sojourner departed well pleased to see a religious wedding ceremony once more. 9

26-F_Titus-mini.gif (8087 bytes)In the fall of 1867 she bought the Merritt "barn" on College Street and set about fixing up a couple of rooms to live in that winter. Sojourner sent a letter to her abolitionist friend Amy Post, telling her that, "I have been at work at my cellar myself, carrying the dirt out. It was so heavy I could not shovel it out so I would carry it out in my apron." 10  Sojourner's "scribe" Frances Titus wrote to Eliza Leggett in Detroit, appealing for funds to help complete work on the house:

Her house is progressing slowly [but] ... She thinks she will get her rooms finished for winter should the weather continue pleasant. Had she means to employ another workman it could soon be accomplished." 11

Even when her house was finally fixed up, it was not spacious or elaborate. When the abolitionist Parker Pillsbury visited Battle Creek in 1875, he described it as "a miserable little house, of two rooms, -- the one contains her cot also...the cook stove which, with a chair or two, took up all the space." 12   She could often be seen, "smoking a clay pipe usually -- in front of her dwelling, on a little platform (about five feet square) every evening in the summer at close of day." 13

02-Portrait-mini.jpg (23825 bytes)Though she was deeply respected by the adults in town, and a beloved friend to many children, Sojourner was not immune from the actions of local pranksters. In 1881 a blanket was stolen from her yard. After a notice was placed in the newspaper, "the blanket was found in a hammock in a neighbors' yard, placed there by the thief, no doubt, who was afraid to go to Sojourner's house." 14

One winter visitor to "this famous citizen of our town" found her:

comfortably seated before a cheerful wood fire (Sojourner does not like coal), [bothered by] some 'sort o' room a tisum, ' as she termed it, intending a pun upon her close confinement to her room. ... She is, however, still able to make her own bed, poke the fire very often and, if she wishes, cook her own breakfast, though her daughters living with her usually take care of these, together with other household duties. Sojourner takes the greater portion of her sleep at night, as well as during the day, in an old-fashioned chair by the fireside, and in 'naps' instead of prolonged rest. ... Her best hours of meditation and prayer (for Sojourner is deeply religious) are during the night time, while her soundest sleep occurs directly after meals. 15

No local gathering of any consequence was complete without a speech from Sojourner. She received an enthusiastic reception whenever she appeared, at Emancipation Day picnics, the Hamblin Opera House or the parlor of the Sanitarium. The local newspaper described her visit to a county fair:

She drew a larger crowd than did Gen. Grant who ... spoke there last year. While at the fair ground she was drawn about in a miniature carriage by a pair of Shetland ponies, to her great delight, she heading a procession and being followed by the marshal, a band, and citizens in carriages. 16

In March 1880, she was asked to address the local temperance Red Ribbon Club, where she gave a "plain, practical common-sense talk, full of sharp hits, suggestive points well applied and witty repartee." The Club reported that, "at no previous meeting, however talented the speaker, has there assembled so large an audience or been so large a number of new names added to the [temperance] pledge." 17

A few days before the lecture, her temperance friends had planned a special evening for Sojourner:

About sixty gentlemen and ladies, especial friends of Sojourner Truth including many of our most prominent citizens, gathered at her residence on College stret [sic], last evening, March 2nd, and gave her a most successful surprise. The W.C.T.U. adjourned to her cottage at 5 o'clock p.m., whereupon we found Sojourner dressing to receive "just a few friends" Mrs. Titus had informed her were coming. The immaculate white cap, apron and snowy 'kerchief folded over the big warm heart beneath the dress of sober grey, composed the attire of our heroine, worn upon this pleasant occasion.

As other friends from all parts of the city were rapidly filing in, Sojourner for once was completely thrown off the track of her habitual stoic equilibrium -- as she expressed it to Mrs. Titus, who came later, "They kept floodin' and floodin' in 'til I just says, 'Why, bless my heart, chil'ren, war on arth did ye all come from? and when in the name of common-sense are ye goin' to stop comin'?"

In a state of bewildered delightment Sojourner flitted from one to another, apparently afraid some guest would vanish 'ere she fully realized who had come. A 6 o'clock every nook and corner of the little cottage was comfortably filled, and drawing "the old arm chair" into the parlor we led Sojourner in and at last persuaded her to be seated and entertain her guests in general conversation.

No one who listened will ever forget the quaint sayings that fell like apples of gold from her inspired lips -- words of wisdom and truth, crisp aphorisms, that have made Sojourner Truth the remarkable woman she has become. ... Sojourner then sang in a deep and sonorous voice, full of pathos and earnestness, "There is a Home Beyond," and "There is a Bright Celestial City," to the great delight of her guests. Mrs. H. S. Marsh read an original poem written expressly for the occasion. It was affecting to see Sojourner listen, with closed eyes, compressed lips, her whole frame trembling with emotion. As the words of the poem fell upon her ear, she frequently ejaculated, "That's so," "Bless the Lord, honey," "That's so."

A sumptuous supper was then served, consisting of light biscuit and warm sugar (the first of the season), tea, coffee and the richest of cake of all variety and kinds in abundance. ... At parting, Sojourner said, "I'm glad, chil'ren, that ye all come. These things are not for a day, but the memory will exist through all eternity." 18

Truly, Sojourner Truth herself was "not for a day, but [her] memory will exist through all eternity," both as a beloved citizen of Battle Creek and as a revered citizen of the nation.

 

ENDNOTES

 

1. Battle Creek Journal, August 8, 1877.

2. Battle Creek Enquirer, "Sojourner Truth Expected to Live for Another Century to Finish Her Work," one of the "At the Sign of 'I Remember' " series, February 27, 1916.

3. Battle Creek Moon Journal, "50 Years Ago Today, July 3, 1879," July 3, 1929.

4. Battle Creek Enquirer, "Her Parents Fled from Bondage in Old Kentucky before Days of Civil War," one of the "At the Sign of 'I Remember' " series, October 15, 1916.

5. Battle Creek Enquirer, "Pioneer Resident of City Recalls Sojourner Truth's Old Lullabies," 1929.

6. "Sojourner Truth," a reminiscence by Minnie Merritt Fay, June 3, 1929.

7. "Pioneer Resident."

8. Minnie Merritt Fay reminiscence.

9. Unidentified Battle Creek newspaper, June 21, 1929, Martich Black History Collection, Local History Collection, Willard Public Library, Battle Creek, MI.

10. Letter to Amy Post, November 4, 1867, from the archives of the Sojourner Truth Library, State University of New York, College at New Paltz, New Paltz, New York, from the notes of Berenice Lowe in the archives of the Historical Society of Battle Creek.

11. Letter to Eliza Leggett, November 13, 1867, from the archives of the Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library, from the notes of Berenice Lowe in the archives of the Historical Society of Battle Creek.

12. Mabee, Carleton, Sojourner Truth, Slave, Prophet, Legend, New York, New York University Press, 1993, p. 215.

13. Letter from Lewis Anderson to Berenice Lowe, August 6, 1955, archives of the Historical Society of Battle Creek.

14. Battle Creek Nightly Moon, November 14, 1881.

15. Unidentified Battle Creek newspaper, "Sojourner Truth, A Pleasant Hour at the Fireside of this Interesting Centenarian," undated, vol. xxxi, #1575, (c. 1882-83). Martich Black History Collection.

16. Battle Creek Nightly Moon, November 17, 1881.

17. Battle Creek Daily Journal, "Sojourner Truth, Her Lecture Before the Red Ribbon Club Sunday, March 7th, 1880, Great Enthusiasm, Over 40 Signatures to the Pledge." March 8, 1880.

18. unidentified Battle Creek newspaper, "Sojourner Truth, She was Surprised by a Large Party of Her Friends, Last Evening," March 3, 1880. Martich Black History Collection.

 

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