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Sojourner Truth's America

Sojourner Truth's America

Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 520
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    Sojourner Truth's America
    Book Description:

    This fascinating biography tells the story of nineteenth-century America through the life of one of its most charismatic and influential characters: Sojourner Truth. In an in-depth account of this amazing activist, Margaret Washington unravels Sojourner Truth's world within the broader panorama of African American slavery and the nation's most significant reform era. _x000B__x000B_Born into bondage among the Hudson Valley Dutch in Ulster County, New York, Isabella was sold several times, married, and bore five children before fleeing in 1826 with her infant daughter one year before New York slavery was abolished. In 1829, she moved to New York City, where she worked as a domestic, preached, joined a religious commune, and then in 1843 had an epiphany. Changing her name to Sojourner Truth, she began traveling the country as a champion of the downtrodden and a spokeswoman for equality by promoting Christianity, abolitionism, and women's rights._x000B__x000B_Gifted in verbal eloquence, wit, and biblical knowledge, Sojourner Truth possessed an earthy, imaginative, homespun personality that won her many friends and admirers and made her one of the most popular and quoted reformers of her times. Washington's biography of this remarkable figure considers many facets of Sojourner Truth's life to explain how she became one of the greatest activists in American history, including her African and Dutch religious heritage; her experiences of slavery within contexts of labor, domesticity, and patriarchy; and her profoundly personal sense of justice and intuitive integrity._x000B__x000B_Organized chronologically into three distinct eras of Truth's life, Sojourner Truth's America examines the complex dynamics of her times, beginning with the transnational contours of her spirituality and early life as Isabella and her embroilments in legal controversy. Truth's awakening during nineteenth-century America's progressive surge then propelled her ascendancy as a rousing preacher and political orator despite her inability to read and write. Throughout the book, Washington explores Truth's passionate commitment to family and community, including her vision for a beloved community that extended beyond race, gender, and socioeconomic condition and embraced a common humanity. For Sojourner Truth, the significant model for such communalism was a primitive, prophetic Christianity._x000B__x000B_Illustrated with dozens of images of Truth and her contemporaries, Sojourner Truth's America draws a delicate and compelling balance between Sojourner Truth's personal motivations and the influences of her historical context. Washington provides important insights into the turbulent cultural and political climate of the age while also separating the many myths from the facts concerning this legendary American figure.

    eISBN: 978-0-252-09374-6
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xviii)
    (pp. xix-xxii)
    (pp. 1-6)

    On June 1, 1843, the Sojourner boarded the Brooklyn Ferry in Lower Manhattan and headed for Long Island. A thrifty woman with a savings account, she carried only a few coins to “pay Caesar.” Once “vain in her clothes,” she carried only a few belongings in a knapsack. After disembarking on Long Island and walking along the sandy road, she met a Quaker woman. “I can see her now,” Sojourner Truth told a Chicago newspaper reporter, as she recalled that conversation from long ago.

    The Sojourner asked the woman for a drink of water.

    “What is thy name?” said she....


    • Illustrations
      (pp. None)
    • CHAPTER 1 African and Dutch Religious Heritage
      (pp. 9-17)

      “I am African,” Sojourner Truth told an audience. “You can see that plain enough.” Traveling the antislavery circuit, facing detractors as well as supporters, Sojourner acknowledged ties to the Motherland even as some whites declared her race to be descended from “monkeys and baboons.” She was not born in Africa. However, her maternal grandparents were first-generation “salt water” people who experienced the brutal Middle Passage, “seasoning” into a new culture, and another world. Truth’s mother-in-law always spoke broken English. On the Abolitionist platform, Sojourner sometimes shared with her audience stories of Africa told by her husband’s mother.¹

      When Sojourner was...

      (pp. 18-31)

      “The Low Dutch,” Sojourner Truth recalled, “were very close and ignorant, and so, naturally, to this day, I can neither read nor write.” Nor did she go to church. “I knew God,” she added, “but I didn’t know Jesus Christ.”¹ Nurtured in this narrow, Dutch-speaking insular world, it is a wonder that Sojourner Truth developed into such a spiritual woman and a gifted orator in the English language. How was Bell, as a youngster, exposed to religion? Why did the very religious Dutch, unlike other denominations, deny church affiliation to their black domestics?

      The linchpin connecting Dutch Pietism with black...

      (pp. 32-48)

      Bell’s family remained together for two years after Charles Hardenbergh’s death in 1808, while his estate was settled. Advertisements appearing repeatedly in the 1808 Plebeian might have been for Elizabeth, “a middle aged Negro wench, brought up on a farm, for sale for life.” The deceased Old Colonel’s instructions that his kin care for “old Negro James” led to a contentious debate that was finally resolved by emancipating both of Bell’s parents. Elizabeth would care for James, now nearly blind. Another Plebeian sale notice beginning January 16, 1810, sounds like Charles Hardenbergh’s real estate. It offered property “on the turnpike...


    • Illustrations
      (pp. None)
    • CHAPTER 4 Like Hagar and Her Children LONG WALKS TO FREEDOM
      (pp. 51-68)

      In 1817, New York State passed a law emancipating all enslaved adults on July 4, 1827, if they were born before 1799. Individuals born after 1799 remained enslaved until the age of twenty-five if female and until twenty-eight if male.¹ Free blacks and antislavery whites spread the news quickly. At first, this law may have meant little to twenty-year-old Bell. But as time passed, the hope of liberty gradually dampened her slavish devotion to John Dumont.

      So much had happened to Bell after Charles Hardenbergh’s death thrust her away from her parents and a false sense of security. But her...

      (pp. 69-80)

      On March 1, 1832, Isabella dictated a record of her religious conversion. She carried this note in her carpetbag throughout her life, and it was preserved in a museum in Lansing, Michigan. The heading, dated 1827, is followed by a testament: “Isabella Van Wagner . . . experience . . . It is now five years this winter since I knew there was a risen Savior.”¹ At the time Isabella dictated her note, she was a popular camp meeting exhorter, recognized for her calling and access to the highest sacred authority. The spiritual liberation attested to in the 1832 record...

    • CHAPTER 6 Sanctification and Perfection BECOMING A RELIGIOUS RADICAL
      (pp. 81-97)

      Isabella migrated to New York City with a “Mr. and Miss Gear” in 1828. She was more fortunate than most freed women relocating to urban centers. She quickly found employment because Miss Gear, a schoolteacher, introduced Isabella to “respectable” Methodist families, and she had excellent letters of recommendation. Isabella left three daughters behind. Getty Dumont recalled that Isabella tried to leave two-year-old Sophia with John Dumont, but he said the child was too young; but later he did take Sophia. The two “colored” females listed in John Dumont’s household in 1830—one “under ten” and another “over ten”—were Diana...

    • CHAPTER 7 “I Will Crush Them with the Truth” THE COMMUNE OF MATTHIAS
      (pp. 98-126)

      Isabella did not like Mrs. Bolton, and resented the reformed sex worker’s influence on Elijah Pierson. “Fair, fat, and forty,” well-dressed, and “pleasing and genteel in her manners,” Bolton secured the position of matron at the Magdalen Society by manipulating Pierson. When the Magdalen closed, Pierson hired Bolton to do needlework in his home. Isabella also questioned Mrs. Bolton’s spiritual reformation; she revealed almost proudly that she was a seasoned seducer of men and had “lived in fornication,” and she named various gentlemen who had paid her large sums of money for sex. Bolton also confessed to joining the Methodists...


    • Illustrations
      (pp. None)
    • CHAPTER 8 The Antislavery Vanguard, 1833–1843
      (pp. 129-140)

      When Isabella returned to her previous lifestyle, the Abolitionist movement was in full throttle. Although she had learned not to place her faith in religious leaders, and was never guided by institutions, her association with Zion Church placed her in the center of antislavery activism. She apparently did not join the Abolitionists while in New York City. Yet the movement into which she would step as Sojourner Truth was already well established there. The birth pangs of the early antislavery movement, though preceding the emergence of Sojourner Truth, are the subject of this chapter; they are important to understand as...

    • CHAPTER 9 “The Spirit Calls Me There” A SOJOURNER IS CHOSEN
      (pp. 141-155)

      Isabella’s son Peter grew into a tall, well-formed, active young man with a cheerful, mild disposition and a generous and winning personality.¹ But racism stifled his prospects, and unemployment among black males was high. Most worked as porters, peddlers, chimney sweeps, and tub men (night workers who gathered and emptied privies or collected manure). A few semiskilled blacks were cartmen’s helpers, horse groomers, and coachmen, but artisan trades and factory work were largely closed to them. Immigrants from Ireland, Scotland, or “from beyond the seas” dominated apprenticeships. Only one black youth appeared on the New York City Apprentice Register for...

      (pp. 156-174)

      An amazing “colored woman” was inspiring an unusual flurry of liberalism in Springfield, Rachel Stearns wrote Maria Weston Chapman in February 1844. The black preaching woman could not read or write, Stearns added, but “the spirit has taught her.” She was especially effective in preaching tolerance in local churches. In that conservative town, black people attending the white Wesleyan church were being treated courteously; Episcopalians had even admitted a “respectable colored man” to devotion and listened attentively to him; and a nonresistant Garrisonian calling himself a “2nd advent lecturer” had gained a sizable following. The preaching woman was Sojourner Truth,...

    • CHAPTER 11 The Cold Water Army, Olive Gilbert, and Sojourner’s Narrative
      (pp. 175-190)

      Hydropathy was among the most important new “isms” at Northampton, and Sojourner Truth claimed it saved her health. David Ruggles, among the first American practitioners of the European cold water cure, collaborated with Dr. Robert Wesselhoeft, a German immigrant, physician, and political freethinker who opened an establishment in Vermont. After first treating himself, Ruggles introduced his method to six Northampton friends, including Sojourner Truth. Claiming to determine the nature and state of a disease by touch, Ruggles used the skin’s condition as a gauge of its electricity, or “vitality of power.” In order to treat a patient successfully, he had...

    • CHAPTER 12 The Bloodhound Bill and Intensified Activism
      (pp. 191-205)

      Prepublicity advertisements for Sojourner’s Narrative began in April 1850, with the following statement in the Liberator: “JUST PUBLISHED. And for sale at the Anti-Slavery office at 21 Cornhill, NARRATIVE OF SOJOURNER TRUTH, a Northern Slave emancipated from bodily servitude by the state of New York in 1828. With a Portrait.” In the week before the May convention in 1850, Garrison added a postscript to the announcement: “This is a most interesting Narrative of a most remarkable and highly meritorious woman, the sale of which is to be for her exclusive benefit. We commend it to all the friends of the...

    • CHAPTER 13 The New York Campaign
      (pp. 206-220)

      In February 1851, Sojourner Truth prepared to join the campaign through central and western New York. “I am going with George Thompson on a lecturing tour,” Garrison had told her. “Come with us and you will have a good chance to dispose of your book.” The AASS would cover her expenses. Although now a traveling Abolitionist, she lived on her own resources. Samuel Hill was patient about her mortgage, but she was anxious about her printing expenses. “I had been publishing my Narrative,” she recalled, “and owed for the whole edition, a great debt to me! Every cent I could...

      (pp. 221-247)

      “I got to Buffalo on the evening of the same day I left you,” Sojourner Truth informed Amy Post by letter in early June. She had “a beautiful passage up the lake” (Lake Erie) that night, and arrived in Cleveland the next morning. Cleveland, like Rochester, began as an insignificant little village. In 1796, a black New York pilot and Iroquois interpreter (“Black Joe of Buffalo”) guided Moses Cleveland (Olive Gilbert’s great-uncle) to the site that bears his name. By 1850, thanks to the Erie and Ohio canals, Cleveland was the most important city in northern Ohio, called the Western...

    • CHAPTER 15 “I Go in for Agitatin’”
      (pp. 248-271)

      Sojourner Truth participated in abolition during momentous times, when the movement made great strides. Many histories insist that abolition’s “greatest contribution” and “most difficult tasks” occurred in the 1830s and early 1840s, but in fact the apex of the antislavery struggle lay ahead. In the 1850s, the abolition movement extended its geographical reach, and infused other social movements, showcased women, and those with different ideologies merged strategies. Even so, it was a sinuous and rocky road to national antislavery awareness, leaving in its wake myriad symptoms: broken political agreements; imprisoned, worn out, or deceased activists; desperate “fugitive slaves”; and angry...

    • CHAPTER 16 Truth Is Powerful
      (pp. 272-297)

      After the 1856 conventions, Sojourner Truth held meetings in upstate New York, visited her Rochester family, the Posts, and then went to Ohio. Among friends in Ashtabula County, she had a chance to celebrate J. W. Walker’s transition into the spirit world, but also to reflect on the void her friend left in the western movement. Walker had died in Michigan, helping Abolitionists revive their state organization. Although he had left an antislavery legacy “liberally scattered in the cities and towns, the hamlets and cabin settlements of Ohio and Michigan,” his excessive labors had ruined his health and caused his...

    • CHAPTER 17 Proclaim Liberty throughout the Land
      (pp. 298-333)

      Sojourner Truth had spent twenty years speaking against slavery, and the last seven lecturing throughout seven western states. Her health, which had been amazingly good, declined along with her spirits. For all of their successes in Indiana, emancipation seemed in doubt in 1862. Moreover, she refused to return to Harmonia and lived in a Battle Creek basement. The stress of the Indiana campaign also took a heavy physical toll on this sixty-five-year-old messenger of God. Eventually her health failed completely; Joseph and Phebe Merritt cared for her with help from her daughter Diana. Sojourner’s friend Samuel Rogers remembered that she...

      (pp. 334-354)

      Sojourner Truth joined the newly revived woman’s movement, which had been quiet during the war in the interest of national solidarity. Indeed, in 1863, women had organized the National Woman’s Loyal League to support the Union and collect a million signatures advocating a Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery. Funded by the AASS, the league’s paid female agents branched throughout the North and West but delivered only four hundred thousand signatures to Congress. Garrison’s private comment that the league was more of a woman’s rights organization was not far off the mark. League auxiliaries became the nexus for a postwar suffrage movement...

    • CHAPTER 19 “I Am on My Way to Kansas”
      (pp. 355-376)

      Sojourner witnessed the same heart breaking Washington scenes in 1870 she had left in 1867: “able men and women taking dry bread from the government to keep from starving.” This, she told a New York Tribune reporter, inspired her cause of getting land for her people. They should go out West, “where the land is so plenty,” and work for themselves. Back at her former Capitol Street residence, she found Josephine Griffing frail and unwell but hard at work. Freed people still crowded inside to receive cast-off “hats, coats, pants, meat, tea, and coffee, etc,” while others waited outside shivering...

    (pp. 377-380)

    Sojourner was largely housebound, though not bedridden, by the fall of 1882. Cared for by Diana and Elizabeth, she enjoyed visitors, particularly from newspaper reporters. She still made her own bed, poked the fire, and prepared her own breakfast, but her daughters did the cooking and household chores. Her routine, she said, mainly involved conversing, occasionally singing, and sitting by the wood fire in meditation and prayer. Her leg grew progressively worse, however, and she was ill much of the time during her last year of life. She remained cheerful, patient, and never lost her wry sense of humor. During...

  11. NOTES
    (pp. 381-454)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 455-478)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 479-481)