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Sojourner Truth: Slave, Prophet, Legend

Carleton Mabee
with Susan Mabee Newhouse
Copyright Date: 1995
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 312
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  • Book Info
    Sojourner Truth
    Book Description:

    Many Americans have long since forgotten that there ever was slavery along the Hudson River. Yet Sojourner Truth was born a slave near the Hudson River in Ulster County, New York, in the late 1700s. Called merely Isabella as a slave, once freed she adopted the name of Sojourner Truth and became a national figure in the struggle for the emancipation of both blacks and women in Civil War America. Despite the discrimination she suffered as both a black and a woman, Truth significantly shaped both her own life and the struggle for human rights in America. Through her fierce intelligence, her resourcefulness, and her eloquence, she became widely acknowledged as a remarkable figure during her life, and she has become one of the most heavily mythologized figures in American history. While some of the myths about Truth have served positive functions, they have also contributed to distortions about American history, specifically about the history of blacks and women. In this landmark work, the product of years of primary research, Pulizter-Prize winning biographer Carleton Mabee has unearthed the best available sources about this remarkable woman to reconstruct her life as directly as the most original and reliable available sources permit. Included here are new insights on why she never learned to read, on the authenticity of the famous quotations attributed to her (such as Ar'n't I a woman?), her relationship to President Lincoln, her role in the abolitionist movement, her crusade to move freed slaves from the South to the North, and her life as a singer, orator, feminist and woman of faith. This is an engaging, historically precise biography that reassesses the place of Sojourner Truth - slave, prophet, legend--in American history.Sojourner Truth is one of the most famous and most mythologized figures in American history. Pulitzer-Prize-winning biographer Carleton Mabee unearths heretofore-neglected sources and offers valuable new insights into the life of a woman who, against all odds, became a central figure in the struggle for the emancipation of slaves and women in Civil War America.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-6313-1
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Illustrations
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
    Carleton Mabee
  5. Chronology of Truth’s Life
    (pp. xiii-xviii)
  6. 1 Growing Up a Slave
    (pp. 1-15)

    Isabella, or Sojourner Truth as she was later called, was born a slave in Ulster County, New York, near the Hudson River. Most Americans have long since forgotten that there ever was any slavery along the Hudson River. But Isabella was born at a time when slavery already had a long history in the Hudson region, reaching back to its early Dutch settlers.

    Isabella’s parents were slaves of the Dutch-speaking Hardenbergh family. The only language Isabella’s parents spoke was Dutch, and it was the only language Isabella learned as a small child.

    She was born in a hilly neighborhood then...

  7. 2 Slave Mother
    (pp. 16-24)

    On July 4, 1827, all the remaining slaves in New York State were freed. This included Tom and Isabella, but it did not include Isabella’s children. According to the law gradually freeing the slaves in the state, the children were already free, but they remained bound servants, required to continue serving their masters until they were in their twenties.

    On this July 4th—chosen by the state as the day to free the slaves because the day symbolized American freedom—unusual numbers of Ulster County blacks found their way to Kingston, the county seat, to celebrate. We do not know...

  8. 3 Monstrous Kingdom
    (pp. 25-42)

    In New York City, with the help of Miss Gear, Isabella Van Wagenen found work as a domestic in white households. Keeping a certain self-respect, she refused to allow herself, she said, to “bow to the filth of the city.”¹ Nevertheless, she was uncertain of herself, still trying to discover who she was, what she believed, and what she could do.

    She joined Methodist churches, at first the John Street Church, the mother church of American Methodism. It was a predominantly white church that had included blacks from its beginning; she joined it by bringing a letter from the Methodist...

  9. 4 New Missions
    (pp. 43-59)

    After living fourteen years in or near New York City, Isabella Van Wagenen decided that New York was no longer the place for her. She felt it was “a wicked city,” a “Sodom.” In New York, she said, “the rich rob the poor, and the poor rob one another.” She became convinced that she herself had been robbing the poor because she had been miserly in trying to save her money, and because she had been taking jobs away from the poor by taking on extra jobs that she did not really need. She felt she herself had been “unfeeling,...

  10. 5 Why Did She Never Learn to Read?
    (pp. 60-66)

    Isabella emerged from the miasma of slavery in New York State to become, as Sojourner Truth, a national figure in the movements to advance the rights of women and blacks. Amazingly, she accomplished this without ever learning to read or write. “I neber had no eddication,” she once told an audience, seeming to mix apology with boast.¹

    Her illiteracy has long been well known, but the question of why such an able and purposeful woman remained illiterate has been considered only casually, if at all. The question is difficult to answer because the original sources available on Truth are thin....

  11. 6 Her Famous Akron Speech
    (pp. 67-82)

    Sojourner Truth delivered a provocative speech at a women’s rights convention in Akron, Ohio, in 1851. The haunting “Ar’n’t I a woman?” question, which Truth is reported to have used dramatically again and again in the speech, has become in our time a familiar slogan in the women’s rights movement. Moreover, the speech and the circumstances surrounding it have become significant not only in interpreting Sojourner Truth but also in interpreting the formative years of the struggle for both black and women’s rights in America.

    Truth’s speech has almost invariably been presented as reported by Frances D. Gage. Since Gage...

  12. The illustrations
    (pp. None)
  13. 7 Confronting Douglass
    (pp. 83-92)

    In 1860 Harriet Beecher Stowe published an arresting story about Truth’s confronting Frederick Douglass. According to Stowe, Douglass was speaking and Truth sat in the front row of the audience:

    Frederick Douglass, fired with the wrongs of his race, and the despairs of the white race, declared that there was neither hope nor help for the slave but in their own right arms.

    In the pause that followed this appeal, Sojourner lifted her dark face, working with intense feeling, and said in a low, deep voice, which was heard in every corner of the room, “Frederick, is God dead?”


  14. 8 Northampton to Battle Creek
    (pp. 93-103)

    When Truth acquired her house in Northampton in 1850, it was the first time she had a house she could share with her children. Though earlier she had several times been willing to go away from her children, at this time she invited all three of her daughters to live with her. By this time all of them were legally free to come.

    Sophia, the youngest of the three, had been freed, at least informally, at the same time as Sojourner herself, the Van Wagenens having bought both of them in effect to free them from Dumont. In 1850, almost...

  15. 9 Underground Railroader?
    (pp. 104-109)

    When Truth was in her old age, a reporter once asked her whether she had helped slaves escape through the Underground Railroad. She replied, “Yes, indeed, chile.” But she gave no details and seemed to turn quickly to something else.¹

    Many twentieth-century publications have asserted that Truth participated significantly in the Underground Railroad without supplying details of where or when she did so. For example, a history of the Railroad claimed that Truth was one of the Railroad’s “major personalities.” The scholars Jane and William Pease claimed that Truth was as well known “on fugitive escape routes” as “on the...

  16. 10 Romanticized: Libyan Sibyl
    (pp. 110-115)

    At the world’s fair in London in 1862, a statue inspired by Sojourner Truth became a center of attention. Harriet Beecher Stowe had played a role in the statue’s creation.

    Several years earlier when Stowe had been visiting Rome, she attended a breakfast at the house of the sculptor William Wetmore Story, of Massachusetts, a son of a U.S. Supreme Court Justice. Story was then working on a statue of the African queen, Cleopatra. Striving to find a style that was distinctly his own, Story rejected the idea of portraying Cleopatra in a conventionally elegant, cool Greek style, choosing instead,...

  17. 11 With President Lincoln and the Freedmen
    (pp. 116-128)

    By early 1864, Truth had decided to visit Washington. As she put it in a letter at the time, she wanted to visit Washington “to see the freedmen of my people. This is a great and glorious day. It is good to live in it & behold the shackles fall from the manacled limbs.”¹ The people she wished to see were blacks in the rebel states who had recently been freed by Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Amid the chaos of the Civil War, many of them, especially from Virginia, were crowding in confusion into Washington, often hungry and lost, looking for refuge....

  18. 12 Riding Washington’s Horse Cars
    (pp. 129-138)

    By 1865, when Truth was working with the freed slaves in Washington, she already had long experience with discrimination in public transportation. New York City horse cars had often been segregated, with blacks allowed to ride only on the outside platform, or only in certain infrequent cars reserved for blacks. Across the North on stage coaches, blacks had often been forced to ride on top, in the open, if they were allowed to ride at all. On trains, Truth as a black had often been sent into smoking cars, whether or not she wanted to “swallow” the smoke.¹ Now in...

  19. 13 Moving Freed Slaves to the North
    (pp. 139-155)

    Soon after Sojourner Truth arrived in Washington in 1864, she talked to the freed slaves in one of the temporary camps provided for them by the federal government. According to her recollection, she told them they were “in disgrace” living as they were “off the government.” She told them to “get off the government and take care of themselves.” They grew angry at her and turned her out of the building where she was speaking to them. But she followed them to their barracks, and continued to berate them. She told them “to hold up their heads and be men.”...

  20. 14 Western Land
    (pp. 156-171)

    For several years Sojourner Truth devoted herself to a plan of her own to move freed slaves on a large scale from Washington to the West. Describing her plan in hazy terms, she called it variously a plan for a “home” or “homes” for freedmen in the West, or “a grant of land,” or a black “colony” like Liberia, or a black “reservation” like an Indian reservation. Some commentators have interpreted her plan as being for a separate black “state.”

    By the time of the Civil War, the idea of sending freed slaves out of the South to make a...

  21. 15 Women’s Rights
    (pp. 172-184)

    As Truth grew up, she experienced the degradation of slave women. After she was freed, she knew the demoralization of poor women who worked for other families to the neglect of their own. After she had already begun to develop her talents as a preacher, she fell under the spell of an authoritarian cult leader who would not allow women to preach.

    She eventually emerged from slavery, poverty, scandal, and a sense of failure, as a survivor, strengthened by faith, determined to improve herself and the world. By the time she joined the Northampton Association, her deep voice and strong...

  22. 16 Goose Wings and High Heels
    (pp. 185-192)

    Exuberant as Truth sometimes was, and certain that God was guiding her, she could not easily be contained within set bounds. She did not fit neatly into the patterns of behavior expected of blacks, or of women, or of women reformers. This was true of her behavior in various aspects of her life, including dress.

    As a young slave, she dressed in homespun cloth that did not always reach long enough for a fast-growing girl. As she explained it once, slaveowners “used to weave what dey called nigger-cloth,” a coarse cloth such as whites would not wear. Masters gave the...

  23. 17 Drink and Smoke
    (pp. 193-199)

    When Truth was young, she liked to dance with her fellow slaves. According to Gertrude, the daughter of her slavemaster Dumont, she was an “excellent” dancer, being “quick in her movements.” She was also “fond of liquor and tobacco, and used both when she could get them, for years.”¹

    After Truth had walked away from the Dumonts’ and was living at the Van Wagenens’, when she realized that it was nearly Pentecost, she longed to be back again at the Dumonts to join in the holiday fun. Pentecost—which Truth, like the slaves in the Hudson valley generally, called by...

  24. 18 Friend Titus
    (pp. 200-208)

    In Truth’s time, close supportive relations between women reformers often developed, as between Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, and between Frances Willard and Anna Gordon. But because such relations between black and white women were rare, Truth’s relationship to Frances Walling Titus has special meaning.

    Titus was a New England–born Quaker who had known Truth through the Progressive Friends before Truth settled in the Battle Creek area. Like many Quakers, Titus had drifted away from the Quakers somewhat—she and her husband had joined the Battle Creek Swedenborgian Church during its brief existence, and she felt the...

  25. 19 Friends and Supporters
    (pp. 209-218)

    In addition to her close friends like Titus and Haviland, in her later years Truth had many other friends and supporters. Warren Chase, her neighbor in Michigan, wrote of her in 1863, she “has many friends in our state.” A New York journalist, observing her make her way to the rostrum at a women’s suffrage convention in 1870, and later being given an “ovation,” reported that “her friends … seemed to be many.”¹

    These friends were often co-workers with her in various causes, or supporters of those causes. They were often part of overlapping, informal networks, especially of abolitionists and...

  26. 20 Singer
    (pp. 219-231)

    At its best, Truth’s singing, warm and distinctively her own, powerfully conveyed her experience as a slave, a black, a woman, and a child of God struggling for justice. Truth’s singing also reflected African influences more clearly than most aspects of her life.

    When Truth was the slave of Martin Schryver, the innkeeper, he gave a dance. Just a child then, Truth watched the dancing, and became entranced. She heard the dancers sing what she recalled as “the then famous song, ‘Washington’s Ball,’ ” a song which proclaimed that Washington was a “brave Christian soldier who planted the tree of...

  27. 21 Talking with God
    (pp. 232-246)

    Truth liked to say that once she had converted to Christ, she never “changed” her religion.¹ While certainly Truth always retained much of her early religious perspective, over the years she opened herself to a surprising variety of religious experiences. She shaped her own religion to be not only unworldly, but also, in seeming contradiction, to be concerned, as she said, to turn the world “right side up.”

    In New York City she joined various churches, tried being a missionary to prostitutes, and tried fasting. She took part in revival meetings that included shouting and jumping. She came under the...

  28. Notes
    (pp. 247-274)
  29. Bibliography of Works Cited
    (pp. 275-282)
  30. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 283-284)
  31. Index
    (pp. 285-294)
  32. Back Matter
    (pp. 295-295)