An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: Sojourner Truth

Jul 12, 2018 by

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Sojourner Truth, ca. 1864

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1)   Sojourner Truth, an African-American woman, was born into slavery in 1797. What else do we know historically about her early years?

In 1850, Sojourner Truth produced an autobiography that she titled The Narrative of Sojourner Truth, a Northern Slave. Most of what we know about this woman comes from that work. Historians shy away from accepting an autobiography at face value, hoping instead to find corroborating evidence, and because of that they suggest that her version of her life might not match up exactly with the actual way things happened.

Having said that, most historians feel that she probably told as accurate a version of her life as we can ever hope to learn. We accept, for example, her assertion that she was born a slave in New York in 1797. Her owners gave her the name Isabella, and put her to work doing manual labor at an early age. Her owner died when she turned nine, and along with the rest of his estate Isabella went up for auction.

A man named Neely bought her, and almost immediately began to physically abuse her. After eighteen months, Neely sold her to a man named Schryver, who in turn sold her to a man named Dumont. Isabella later said that while he treated her humanely, Dumont’s wife felt a great enmity towards her.

To make matters worse, when Isabella fell in love with a slave named Robert, his master beat him so severely that Robert broke off her relationship with her. Isabella eventually ended up marrying a slave named Thomas, and the two started a family. Isabella would eventually bear five children, four of whom survived into adulthood.

2)   Apparently, she had a daughter and somehow escaped with her to freedom in 1826. What do we know about these details?

Casual observers of American History might have found it surprising to learn that the woman who became known as Sojourner Truth had New York as her birth state, as they undoubtedly think of New York as a free state. But New York initiated the process of doing away with slavery in 1799, two years after her birth, and did so in a manner that would only start to actually emancipate slaves in 1827.

Mr. Dumont had promised Isabella that he would free her a year before that date, and so she eagerly looked forward to 1826. That year became even more special for her when she gave birth to a daughter that she named Sophia.

Unfortunately, Mr. Dumont reneged on his promise, determining to keep possession of her as long as he legally could. Angered by this, Isabella decided to free herself. One day, she simply took her baby and walked away from the Dumont residence.

She found a family named Van Wagenen in a nearby town who took her in, and agreed to buy her from her owner. This made Isabella legally free.

3)   Her speech “Ain’t I a Woman” about the racial inequalities in America earned her fame. What were the circumstances surrounding this speech?

While living with the Van Wagenens, Isabella became a fervent Christian. In 1843, she changed her name to Sojourner Truth, and began to become involved in various causes. A stay at the Northampton Association of Education and Industry helped to shape her thinking on these matters, and she determined that she would devote her life to giving speeches in support of the causes that she believed in. This commitment led her to Akron, Ohio in 1851, where she delivered a speech to that state’s Women’s Rights Convention. By all accounts, she spoke in powerful terms on the subject of rights for women and African-Americans. Interestingly, however, those accounts do not mention that Sojourner Truth used the phrase “Ain’t I a Woman?”

As it turns out, in 1863 a woman who had heard Sojourner Truth speak that day in Ohio wrote an account in which she attributed those words to her. Most historians believe, therefore, that she never uttered those words, but still deserves praise for an eloquent and passionate defense of the concept of equal rights.

4)   What were some of her other later contributions?

Although Abraham Lincoln announced at the start of the Civil War that he sought only to preserve the Union, Sojourner Truth soon recognized that a Union victory would deal a significant blow to the institution of slavery. Accordingly, she encouraged African-Americans to enlist in the Union Army. To borrow a modern phrase, she put her money where her mouth was, as her grandson joined the 54th Massachusetts Regiment—the most famous African-American military unit during the Civil War. Although in her 60s by then, she volunteered her time to work in the Freedmen’s Hospital in Washington DC. After the war, she turned her attention to prison reform. While most closely associated with abolition, Sojourner Truth also deserves recognition as a champion of many worthy causes.

She has received many accolades since her death, including six schools named for her, so it seems that her legacy will live on well into the twenty-first century.

5)   What have I neglected to ask?

As previously noted, it seems that we remember Sojourner Truth primarily for a phrase that she most likely never uttered. But as is often the case in such situations, this belief is based on a kernel of truth. While giving a speech in the 1850s, a person in the audience denounced her as a fraud, claiming that only a man could speak so convincingly. Without missing a beat, she merely stopped speaking and unbuttoned her blouse, exposing her breasts. She thus established her femininity by her actions, rather than her words. However she revealed her gender, it certainly served its dramatic purpose!

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