Sunday, June 30, 2013

Sojourner Truth: Traveler of Truth

A couple of months ago a friend, Hannah, was about to graduate from university and emailed to ask for relocation and employment advice since she knew I had done it before; moved a long distance from home, found a place to live and a job. My advice was simple – go! I reminded her that the roads conveniently work in both directions. I told her if things don’t work out, it’s easy to go back to familiarity, especially when parents or loved ones are there to take you in and help is available from friends and family, so just do it and go. Hannah thanked me, said I relieved her concerns and suggested that I blog about it; that maybe I could help others in the same situation. So I decided to take her advice this time. 

In considering how to approach this topic, I couldn’t help but think about all of the women throughout history who didn’t have a safety net of any kind (parents, a stable home, extended family, friends, resources, skills, education), yet found their way and managed to change the world in the process. I learned that Sojourner Truth is one of those amazing women.

Born a slave in New York in 1797, Isabella Baumfee was first purchased at the age of 9 along with a herd of sheep for $100. Her owner’s family beat and whipped her, and it was during this time she found refuge in religion, praying aloud when being hurt or was scared. She was sold several times, each time enduring harsh and cruel treatment at the hands of her owners. Around the age of 18 she fell in love with Robert, a fellow slave, but his owner forbade the relationship; he didn’t want his slave having children with a slave he did not own – and therefore would not own the new “property” they produced. One night when Robert visited, his owner and the owner’s son followed him, beat him savagely, bound and dragged him away, never to return. Isabella had a daughter soon after. In 1817 she was forced to marry an older slave and they had four children together.

New York legislated the abolishment of slavery, set to happen on July 4th, 1827. The year before Isabella’s owner had promised her freedom, however, he went back on his promise; Isabella was infuriated. She continued working until she had done enough to feel that she had satisfied her obligations to him (spinning 100 pounds of wool) then escaped with her infant daughter before dawn. Later, she had said:

“I did not run off, for I thought that wicked, but I walked off, believing that to be all right.”

Not certain where she was going and praying for direction, Isabella wandered about, ending up at the home of the Van Wagenens. Her owner soon arrived threatening to take her baby and insisting she come back. Mr. Van Wagenen offered to buy Isabella for the remainder of the year until the emancipation fully took effect. Her owner accepted $20 for her purchase.

Isabella had a life-changing, religious experience during her time with the Van Wagenens. She felt “overwhelmed with the greatness of the Divine presence” and was inspired to preach, quickly becoming known as “remarkable and whose influence was miraculous.” 

Settling in New York City, Isabella had lost her savings and possessions. She resolved to leave and make her way as a traveling preacher. On June 1, 1843, Isabella Baumfree changed her name to Sojourner Truth, telling friends “the Spirit calls me and I must go.” She wandered, depending on the kindness of strangers, ending up at the Northampton Association of Education and Industry in Massachusetts. The group lived on 500 acres of farmland raising livestock, running saw and grist mills and a silk factory. The 210 member group was formed by abolitionists promoting cooperative and productive labor. They were religiously-tolerant women’s rights supporters who were strongly anti-slavery. There, Sojourner worked with notable abolitionists Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison. The group disbanded in 1846 amid debt, unable to stay profitable. Sojourner then went to live with group member George Benson who had started his own cotton mill.

The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave was privately published in 1850, giving Sojourner an income, increasing her speaking engagements and where she could sell copies of her book. She spoke about anti-slavery and women’s rights, often sharing her personal experiences as a slave. Sojourner bought a home in Northampton for $300 after the mill closed. 

Sojourner became involved with an offshoot of the Quakers, a group called Progressive Friends; a spiritualism movement who believed in abolition, the rights of women, non-violence, and communicating with spirits. She bought a home in Harmonia, Michigan in 1857 to live with the community.

During the Civil War, Sojourner spoke on the Union’s behalf; for freeing slaves and enlisting black troops for the war cause. She worked at a government refugee camp for freed slaves in Virginia. While there in 1864, she was invited to the White House to meet President Abraham Lincoln. She continued to work to help the newly-freed slaves after the war ended through the Freedman’s Relief Association and the the Freedman’s Hospital in Washington. In 1867 she moved to Battle Creek, Michigan. There she converted a “barn,” owned by William Merritt, into a house, which four years later he gave her the deed to.

Sojourner spent the year of 1879 in Kansas helping refugees who were migrating west and north by speaking in churches to gain support for the “Exodusters” who were trying to build a new life after the end of slavery. This endeavor was to be her last in her mission.

In July of 1883, Sojourner sought treatment back home in Battle Creek for ulcers on her legs from Dr. John Harvey Kellogg. He grafted some of his own skin onto her legs to try to help cure her ailments. She died at her home on November 26, 1883 at the age of 86.

It’s been 130 years since Sojourner Truth’s last mission. African Americans, women, and society in general, have benefitted greatly from her sacrifices. Sojourner Truth had no safety net, no one to depend on, she struggled, took risks, yet accomplished so much simply by pursuing what she felt to be right. So I say go, in the spirt of Sojourner Truth, and find your place in the world – go. 

I can’t help but think that she is the flawless reflection of the familiar saying from the Bible, “The Truth Will Set You Free.” And yes, she sure did.

Now you’re a little smarter, Girlfriend – And so am I.

Exoduster: a name given to men migrating along the Mississippi River to Kansas in the late 1800’s. Known as the “Great Exodus,” it was the first general migration of African Americans following the end of the Civil War.

In 1854 in Akron, at the Ohio Woman’s Rights Convention, Sojourner Truth gave her most famous speech with her legendary phrase, “Ain't I a Woman?” 

“That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud puddles, or gives me any best place, and ain’t I a woman? ... I have plowed, and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me – and ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man (when I could get it), and bear the lash as well – and ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children and seen most all sold off to slavery and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me – and ain’t I woman?”