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Sojourner Truth, d. 1883, Olive Gilbert, and Frances W. Titus
Narrative of Sojourner Truth; a Bondswoman of Olden Time, Emancipated by the New York Legislature in the Early Part of the Present Century; with a History of Her Labors and Correspondence Drawn from Her "Book of Life;" Also, a Memorial Chapter, Giving the Particulars of Her Last Sickness and Death.
Battle Creek, Mich.: Review and Herald Office, 1884.


Sojourner Truth (ca. 1799-1883) is the name that New York slave Isabella Van Wagenen adopted late in life and used while achieving international renown as an itinerant preacher and public speaker. Born into slavery, Van Wagenen passed through the hands of five masters before her emancipation in 1828. When her son was illegally sold outside New York state lines in the same year, Van Wagenen won his freedom in a lawsuit against Solomon Gedney, a wealthy white man. Van Wagenen subsequently moved to New York City, where she became a supporter of Robert Matthews, the self-proclaimed prophet Matthias. When Matthias's utopian commune disbanded, Van Wagenen left New York City, changed her name to Sojourner Truth, and began to preach. She eventually joined the Northampton Association, another organization with utopian pretensions. There she met Olive Gilbert (1801-1884), who served as the amanuensis for the 1850 first edition of Truth's Narrative.

The 1884 edition of Truth's Narrative reprints the contents of the 1875 edition, and adds both a new preface by Truth's amanuensis, Frances W. Titus (1816-1894), and a final chapter providing the details of Truth's death.

Titus originally wrote the new preface for an 1878 reprinting of the 1875 edition, and in it she stretches the facts of Truth's life to the breaking point. Titus's preface describes a woman very different from the one whose life Gilbert first recorded in 1850—a woman whose life story has been consciously altered to please the readers of her Narrative (p. v). Titus claims that Truth is "a century old" in 1878—old enough to have been a friend of one of George Washington's slaves—but Truth originally tells Gilbert that she is born around 1799 (p. xii). Titus adds more than twenty years to Truth's age in an attempt to make her exploits seem more remarkable, and she makes other sensationalistic claims as well. She claims, for instance, that Truth's "eye-sight, for many years defective, has returned"; that "[h]er gray locks are being succeeded by a luxuriant growth of black hair"; and that a third set of "natural teeth will supersede the necessity of using false ones" (p. xii). This miraculous rejuvenation is "fed by those tropical fires" of Africa running in her veins that, like "those rivers which mysteriously disappear in the bosom of the desert, and unexpectedly burst forth in springs of pure and living water" (p. vi). Truth's face is also wrinkle-free because "I have two skins; I have a white skin under, and a black one to cover it" (p. 29). In ascribing an abnormal physiognomy to Truth, Titus initially asks readers to believe that Truth is a superhuman being who transcends the limitations of race and age; the separately paginated memorial chapter describing her 1883 death proves otherwise.

Despite the care of "skillful physicians," including Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (1852-1943) of the famous Battle Creek Sanitarium, Truth dies in her home in Battle Creek, Michigan, on November 26, 1883, from medical complications related to the ulcers on both her legs (p. 7). In preparation for her burial, "Sojourner's body was robed for the grave in black nun's veiling, with white muslin cap and folded kerchief," despite the fact that Truth was never a communicant in the Catholic Church (p. 9). Truth "said she had been a Methodist till that church outgrew her" (p. 30).Prominent citizens of Battle Creek carry Truth in the nun's habit and casket to her final resting place, and news of her death is mourned across the country, but "T. Thomas Fortune, editor of the Globe, the organ of the colored people of New York" estimates that less "than one colored person out of ten knows who she is" (p. 15): although Truth worked tirelessly for the abolition of slavery before the Civil War—serving as "a conductor on the underground railway" and public speaker—and for the advancement of freed slaves after the Civil War, "her life-work was confined mostly to the North" (pp. 26, 15).

After Truth's death and the publication of her Narrative's final edition in 1884, Titus worked to preserve her memory. In 1890, Titus had raised enough money to commission a tombstone at the local marble works. On the stone, Titus engraved Truth's vital information and the most memorable quotation from an 1847 meeting with Frederick Douglass that first made her famous: "Is God dead, Frederick?" (p. iii). In 1892, for one hundred dollars, Titus also commissioned a portrait of Truth's visit with Abraham Lincoln by local artist Franklin C. Courter. The canvas was later destroyed in a fire, but small photographs of the painting were sold by Titus for twenty-five cents, and Courter's rendition of that meeting remains one of the most famous images of Truth. In 1894, almost nine years after Truth's death, Frances W. Titus, Truth's close friend and business manager, died of Bright's disease—having ensured that Truth's legacy would remain.

Works Consulted: Ashley, Martin L., "Frances Titus: Sojourner's 'Trusted Scribe,'" in Sojourner Truth Archives, (The Sojourner Truth Institute of Battle Creek, 1997), 7 August 2008,; Painter, Nell Irvin, Sojourner Truth, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1996.

Zachary Hutchins

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