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Painting of Sojourner Truth and Abraham Lincoln
Painting of Sojourner Truth
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Sojourner Truth: The Libyan Sibyl

Sojourner Truth (ca. 1799-1883) is renowned for her work as an itinerant preacher and public speaker. Made famous by Harriet Beecher Stowe in an 1863 Atlantic Monthly article, Truth was dubbed the "Libyan Sibyl" and became a national icon of the evangelical, women's rights and abolitionist movements. This month, Documenting the American South remembers the life of Sojourner Truth, who died one hundred twenty-five years ago, on November 26, 1883.

During the nineteenth century, Sojourner Truth was best known for her spontaneously devout reply to Frederick Douglass's 1847 suggestion that God had abandoned African Americans: "Frederick, is God dead?" Whereas Douglass suggested that a merciful God would have delivered African Americans from bondage already, Truth refused to abandon her belief in God's power and willingness to save the slaves at an unknown future date. She is remembered today for another rhetorical question she asked at a convention of women's rights advocates in 1850. Suggesting that the feminist movement had marginalized African American women, Truth asked the convention of suffragists, "Ar'n't I a woman?" Truth, who was not an invited speaker at the convention, rose to speak from her seat on the floor without being asked and reminded her audience of white women that they represented the interests of an entire sex, that black women wished to participate in the political process just as much as their white counterparts.

Given the name Isabella by her parents, Truth was born into slavery, the property "of one Colonel Ardinburgh, Hurley, Ulster County, New York" (p. 13). Isabella passed through the hands of several masters before escaping from John Dumont in 1827, one year before her New York state-mandated manumission. When Isabella left Dumont, she did not try to hide but walked to the home of Isaac Van Wagenen—a man with a reputation for being kind to slaves—and requested his aid. Dumont demanded her return, but Van Wagenen paid him for her last year of service, and because Isabella was legally Van Wagenen's property when she was freed, she acquired the Van Wagenen surname.

Isabella Van Wagenen's first action as a free woman was to sue Solomon Gedney, a wealthy, white landowner, for the recovery of her son Peter, whom he had sold out of state illegally. When Gedney recovered and returned Peter to Van Wagenen at the court's order, Truth became the first African American woman in United States history to win a lawsuit, and before she died, she won two others.

With her son Peter, Van Wagenen moved to New York, where she underwent a dramatic transformation from a newly freed slave whose "early religious impressions were extremely gross" to a woman who "outprayed and preached her compeers" (Vale, p. 126). First as a Methodist in the congregation of Elijah Pierson and then as a disciple of the self-proclaimed prophet Matthias, Van Wagenen learned the art of preaching from charismatic exemplars; then, when she became a Millerite in 1843, Van Wagenen adopted the sect's belief that Christ's Second Coming would occur in that same year and became a preacher herself. She left New York City—"what seemed to her a second Sodom"—on June 1, 1843, stopping only to inform her landlady "that her name was no longer Isabella, but SOJOURNER" and that the Spirit had moved her to become an itinerant preacher (p. 100).

Truth traveled through the countryside, calling the populace to repentance and explaining "her own most curious and original views" to anyone who would listen, and "when she arose to speak in their assemblies, her commanding figure and dignified manner hushed every trifler into silence" (pp. 101, 113-14). She chastised other preachers who advised their listeners to wait for the Second Coming, and when a preacher claimed that the righteous would be "changed in the twinkling of an eye," Truth retorted, "If the Lord should come, he'd change you to nothing! . . . You seem to be expecting to go to some parlor away up somewhere, and when the wicked have been burnt, you are coming back . . . I am not going away; I am going to stay here and stand the fire, like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego!" (pp. 111-12). In this and other exchanges, Truth suggested that the adversities of slavery had prepared her for spiritual trials in a way that white preachers could not understand.

Later, Truth became an outspoken advocate of the abolition and women's suffrage movements. When a heckler disrupted the 1851 Ohio Women's Rights Convention and left the white women who had been invited to address the convention speechless, she rallied the audience against "Dat man ober dar" who said "dat women needs to be helped into carriages, and lifted ober ditches" (p. 134). Reminding her fellow suffragists that African American women had suffered even more than their white counterparts, Truth bared her muscular arm and commanded them in a voice "like rolling thunder" to "Look at me! Look at my arm! . . . I have plowed, and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me—and ar'n't I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man (when I could get it), and bear de lash as well—and ar'n't I a woman?" (p. 134). For Truth, there was no separating the fight for women's rights from the fight to abolish slavery; every form of oppression had to be eliminated.

Truth's dynamic presence made her a compelling public figure whose image other groups frequently worked to appropriate. When Indiana Democrats passed a law forbidding African Americans from crossing state lines, Truth was arrested for violating the statute, and political opponents of the law "put upon me a red, white, and blue shawl, a sash and apron to match, a cap on my head with a star in front, and a star on each shoulder" as she entered the courthouse with a local band playing "The Star Spangled Banner" (p. 140).

Truth became a national icon; her advanced age lent credence to the myth that she had "nursed George Washington," and political commentators made Truth into an embodiment of the first century of United States history: "She stands by the closing century like a twin sister. Born and reared by its side, what it knows she knows, what it has seen, she has seen" (pp. 224, 254). When Truth died in her Battle Creek, Michigan, home in 1883, prominent citizens of the community carried her casket to its final resting place, and public figures from across the northern states wrote tributes to her life and achievements.

Works Consulted: Allibone, S. Austin, Allibone's Dictionary of English Literature and British and American Authors, Philadelphia, PA: J.B. Lippincott, 1899; Ashley, Martin L., "Frances Titus: Sojourner's 'Trusted Scribe,'" in Sojourner Truth Archives, The Sojourner Truth Institute of Battle Creek, 1997, 7 August 2008; Burke, W. J., and Will D. Howe, American Authors and Books, 1640 to the Present Day, New York: Grammercy Publishers, 1943; International Genealogical Index, 1988 Edition, Salt Lake City, UT: Family History Library, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints Painter, Nell Irvin, Sojourner Truth, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1996; Stein, Gordon, ed., The Encyclopedia of Unbelief, Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1985; Wilson, James Grant and John Fiske, ed., Appleton's Cyclopaedia of American Biography, New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1888-1889.

Zachary Hutchins