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  --  PRESIDENT.   Table of Contents     THE VOICE OF THE PRESS.

Truth, Sojourner
Narrative of Sojourner Truth



"In the Senate, on Tuesday, while the bill reported by Senator Morrill appropriating $25,000 for the relief of destitute colored people of the District was under consideration, the following letter from Superintendent of Police Richards was read:--

" Office of Sup't , 488 Tenth st ., WEST,

"Washington, March 6, 1866. " Gentlemen :--

"I have the honor at this time to submit a report, based mainly upon personal inspection, of the sanitary condition of certain localities in the city of Washington, inhabited by colored people, mostly known as 'contrabands,' together with certain other facts connected with the condition of these people.

"The first locality visited is known as 'Murder Bay,' and is situated between Thirteenth and Fifteenth Streets west, below Ohio Avenue, and bordering on the Washington Canal. Here crime, filth, and poverty seem to vie with each other in a career of degradation and death, Whole families, consisting of fathers

mothers, children, uncles, and aunts, according to their own statements, are crowded into mere apologies for shanties, which are without light or ventilation. During the storms of rain or snow their roofs afford but slight protection, while from beneath a few rough boards used for floors the miasmatic effluvia from the most disgustingly filthy and stagnant water, mingled with the exhalations from the uncleansed bodies of numerous inmates, render the atmosphere within these hovels stifling and sickening in the extreme. Their rooms are usually not more than six or eight feet square, with not a window or even an opening (except a door) for the admission of light. Some of the rooms are entirely surrounded by other rooms, so that no light at all reaches where persons live and spend their days and nights. In a space about fifty yards square I found about one hundred families, composed of from three to ten persons each, living in shanties one story in hight, except in a few instances where tenements are actually built on the tops of others. There is a distance of only three or four feet separating these buildings from each other--not even as convenient as an ordinary three-feet alley. These openings lead in so devious a course that one with difficulty finds his way out again. Thus pent up, not even these paths are purified by currents of fresh air. In one building visited, seventeen families were found upon the ground floor, consisting of from two to seven persons each, one restaurant, and one boarding-house. The second story is a large dance hall, where these people nightly congregate for amusement.

"Nearly all of these people came from Virginia

during the rebellion, and some of them propose to return whenever they are assured that they can find work to do there, and will be well treated. It was found that from five to eight dollars per month are paid for the rent of these miserable shanties, except in some instances, where a ground rent of three dollars per month is paid for a little spot covering a few square feet--there some of the more enterprising have erected cabins of their own. These, also, are in equally close proximity to each other, so that it is with difficulty that one can crowd between them.

"On the west side of Fourteenth Street near the same locality, are a large number of small buildings, which, however, are kept in a somewhat more cleanly condition, and are opened to light and ventilation. Here some of the occupants of houses boast of small back yards, but so low and wet are their surfaces that they are a curse rather than a benefit. Filthy water here accumulates, from which, with the advent of warm weather, the seeds of disease must spread among and destroy these wretched people.

"In each of these localities there are no proper privy accomodations, and those that exist are in a leaky and filthy condition generally. Nor can the sanitary laws be properly enforced against delinquents, for they have no means wherewith to pay fines, and a commitment to the work-house is no punishment. I can see no efficient mode of remedying this evil except that scavengers be employed at the public expense, to visit these localities; though by far the best remedy would be to require that these buildings be razed to the ground.


"Under the best sanitary laws that can be enacted, and stringently enforced, these places can be considered as nothing better than propagating grounds of crime, disease, and death; and in the case of a prevailing epidemic, the condition of these localities would be horrible to contemplate.

"A similarly crowded lot of shanties exists on Rhode Island Avenue, between Tenth and Eleventh Streets, though as to fresh air and cleanliness, a somewhat better condition of things exists. Here, in a space some two hundred feet square, two hundred and thirteen persons reside, mostly known as 'contra-bands.' There are several other places equally crowded within the city limits, which I have not yet had time to visit and inspect personally; for which purpose I respectfully ask for further time."A.C. Richards , Sup't .
"To the Board of Police."

Sojourner, witnessing the afflictions of her people, and desiring to mitigate their sufferings, found homes and employment for many in the Northern States, government furnishing transportation for all. In the winter of 1867, she made three trips from Rochester to a town about 200 miles south of Richmond, to obtain laborers for those localities left destitute by the war; but she soon came to see that this was not the best mode of procedure, as it cost a great amount of labor, time, and money to locate the young and strong, leaving the aged and little children still uncared for.

The imagination can scarcely conceive a more harrowing spectacle than the vast multitude, composed

of both sexes, and all ages from helpless infancy to tremulous senility, roaming about, having no possessions but the bodies which had recently been given them by a dash of Abraham Lincoln's pen. Surging to and fro, this motley crowd could claim no more of mother earth than sufficed for standing room, and were liable at any time to be ordered, like Joe, "to move on."

Thus they were borne upon the waves of society as a wrecked ship upon the sea, stripped of spar and sail, rudder and compass, tempest tossed upon the black and sullen deep, with no ray of light to illumine its pathway of gloom. The heads of government, seeing and commiserating their hapless state, established what was called the Freedman's Bureau as a measure of relief, and by its orders each ward daily furnished to the refugees 700 loaves of bread, which served to sustain life, but was inadequate to meet the emergency; for civilization has needs which cannot be supplied by bread alone.

It was sad to see the hungry mass stretch forth its hand, seize the proffered loaf, seek a spot where it might be devoured, and idle away the time till another loaf was due. And could the Bureau have ministered to all their wants, would not this mode of life become productive of enormous evils, since the habits it fostered, having been engendered by the system of slavery, needed no such encouragement? This institution was emphatically the necessity of the hour, but neither wisdom nor prudence would advise its continuance.

The race was increasing at a rapid rate, and the drain upon the national treasury would become exhaustive.

Still, justice demanded that government take efficient legislative action in the interest of these people, whom the genius of General Butler had denominated contrabands, as some reward for years of uncompensated services. Nations anxiously watching the scales in which this government and its dependent millions must be weighed, waited to render their verdict. Advancement moves with slow and feeble pace. The new hinges upon the old. In obtaining freedom, these people were separated from many things, for which, as yet, they had received no equivalent. Those who had not where to lay their heads thought of the rude cabin once their home, in pleasant contrast with the present couch of earth, canopied by the over-arching sky. Languishing with homesickness, the worst of ailments, they were a striking counterpart of those sorrowing captives who, sitting by the rivers of Babylon, hung their harps upon the willows and wept for remembered joys.

Their coarse food and clothing cost them no thought while in slavery. But in a moment comes a change. Now, all thought and action must be bent upon self support. But from transmitted habits many were powerless to exercise the functions of the brain in planning for the future, and, though they had arrived at man's estate, must be cared for like children. As Sojourner went about the city, she soon came to distinguish these contrabands. They had a dreamy look, taking no note of time; it seemed as if a pause had come in their lives--an abyss, over whose brink they dared not look. With so few resources, with beclouded minds, with no education from books or contact

with the world, aside from plantation life--strangers in a strange land, hungry, thirsty, ragged, homeless, they were the very impersonation of Despair, humbly holding out her hands in supplication.

Sojourner had known the joys of motherhood--brief joys, for she had been cruelly separated from her babes, and her mistress' children given to occupy the place which nature designed for her own. She had tasted its sorrows, too--such sorrows as Rachel, weeping for her children because they were not, could never feel. She had drained the cup of woe to the very dregs, and its fumes, like liquid fires, had dried the fountain of tears till there were none to flow.

But many years had passed since that season of affliction. The shackles had been removed from her body, and spirit also. Time dissolves the hardest substance--'tis called the great destroyer--it reconstructs as well. As the divine aurora of a broader culture dispelled the mists of ignorance, love, the most precious gift of God to mortals, permeated her soul, and her too-long-suppressed affections gushed from the sealed fountains as the waters of an obstructed river, to make new channels, bursts its embankments and rushes on its headlong course, powerful for weal or woe. Sojourner, robbed of her own offspring, adopted her race. Happy for the individual, good for humanity, when high aspirations emanate from sad experiences!

The forlorn and neglected children who prowled about the city excited her commiseration; for they had neither homes nor employment, and as idleness is the parent of crime, they were becoming exceedingly

vicious. As a punishment for misdemeanors, they were sent to the station house, from which, after serving their time, they were released, only to continue the same destructive course. Slavery's teachings had bedimmed their perceptions of right, and rendered them incapable of continued moral effort; for her blighting influence, worse than a millstone about their necks, tended to drug them downward forever and forevermore.

Intelligently appreciating the law of transmitted tendencies, Sojourner looked upon them as sinned against as well as sinning. Knowing that the children were the future nation, and that those of her race would play no unimportant part in that future, she felt the need of enlisting sympathy, either human or superhuman, in their behalf. Aided by Gen. Howard, she held meetings in one of the largest churches of the city, to urge the establishment of industrial schools, remote from the city, where they might be placed and taught to become useful members of community. Had she possessed the power and influence of the humane and philanthropic Gov. Bagley, institutions such as he has recently been instrumental in establishing would have sprung into being, till homeless, neglected children would have been no more.

The past she abhorred, with its coffles, its loaded whips, auction blocks, brutal masters, overseers, and all the fearful horrors accruing from the ownership of man by his fellow-man; the sufferings of the present called out her deepest sympathies; but as she peered toward the future with sibyl eyes, her heart beat loud and fast; for she saw in it all grand possibilities.

The angel of emancipation had rolled the stone away from the door of the sepulcher of slavery, and the resurrected millions, bound hand and foot in the grave-clothes of ignorance, bewildered and uncertain, awaited guidance in this transition hour.

Would a Moses appear to remove the bands from wrist and ankle, and with uplifted finger pointing to the pillar of cloud and of promise, lead them forth from this sea of troubles and plant their weary feet upon the Canaan of their desires? Would manna descend from heaven to feed this multitude, who were morally, physically, and intellectually destitute? As neither man nor miracle appeared, Sojourner said, "Lord, let me labor in this vineyard."

But how begin the work of establishing right relations where chaos reigns? Justice must constitute the bottom round in this ladder of progress, up which the race must mount in the struggle to reach higher conditions. How can justice be secured?

As she looked about upon the imposing public edifices that grace the District of Columbia, all built at the nation's expense, she said, " We helped to pay this cost. We have been a source of wealth to this republic. Our labor supplied the country with cotton, until villages and cities dotted the enterprising North for its manufacture, and furnished employment and support for a multitude, thereby becoming a revenue to the government. Beneath a burning southern sun have we toiled, in the canebrake and the rice swamp, urged on by the merciless driver's lash, earning millions of money; and so highly were we valued there, that should one poor wretch venture to escape from

this hell of slavery, no exertion of man or trained blood-hound was spared to seize and return him to his field of unrequited labor.

"The overseer's horn awoke us at the dawning of day from our half-finished slumbers to pick the disgusting worm from the tobacco plant, which was an added source of wealth. Our nerves and sinews, our tears and blood, have been sacrificed on the altar of this nation's avarice. Our unpaid labor has been a stepping-stone to its financial success. Some of its dividends must surely be ours."

Who can deny the logic of her reasoning? The prophet *

(*) Parker Pillsbury. of the nineteenth century said, many years ago, that "our nation will yet be obliged to pay sigh for sigh, groan for groan, and dollar for dollar, to this wronged and outraged race." Ah, me! what an awful debt when we consider that every mill of interest will surely be added! Did mothers and wives whose husbands and sons languished and died in Libby and Andersonville ever think of that prophecy? Does this nation realize that the debt is still unpaid? the note not taken up yet?

She knew that the United States owned countless acres of unoccupied land, which by cultivation would become a source of wealth to it. She also saw that it was given to build railroads, and that large reservations were apportioned to the Indians. Why not give a tract of land to those colored people who would rather become independent through their own exertions than longer clog the wheels of government?

It seemed to Sojourner that the money expended

upon officials, in just this District alone, to convict and punish these vagabond children, would be ample to provide for them homes with the accessories of church and school-house and all the necessary requirements of civilization. With God's blessing, they might yet become an honor to the country which had so cruelly wronged them. This scheme presented itself to her mind as a divine revelation, and she made haste to lay her plan before the leading men of the government. They heard her patiently, expressed themselves willing to do the people's bidding; but manifested no enthusiasm. She regretted now, as ever, that women had no political rights under government; for she knew that could the voice of maternity be heard in the advocacy of this measure, the welfare, not only of the present generation, but of future ones, would be assured.

As it requires both the male and female element to propagate and successfully rear a family, so the State, being only the larger family, demands both for its life and proper development. As those who had the power to legislate for the carrying out of this measure, regarded it indifferently, and those who would gladly work for its accomplishment lacked political opportunity, some other measure must be adopted. She thought that whatever else had been denied to woman, she had ever been allowed to stand on praying ground, and that through petition she might be able to reach the head and heart of the government, or rather half the head and half the heart, as only in this proportion have they ever been represented in our country's legislation. She therefore dictated the following petition:--

" To the Senate and House of Representatives , in Congress assembled:--

" Whereas , From the faithful and earnest representations of Sojourner Truth (who has personally investigated the matter), we believe that the freed colored people in and about Washington, dependent upon government for support, would be greatly benefited and might become useful citizens by being placed in a position to support themselves: We, the undersigned, therefore earnestly request your honorable body to set apart for them a portion of the public land in the West, and erect buildings thereon for the aged and infirm, and otherwise legislate so as to secure the desired results."

The vitalizing forces of her nature were now fully aroused and deeply earnest. She felt that her life culminated at this point, and that all her previous experiences had been needful to prepare her for this crowning work. Being convinced of the feasibility and justice of this plan, she hastened to present her petition to the public, and solicit signatures. Her first lecture for this object was delivered in Providence, R.I., in Feb., 1870, to a large and appreciative audience.

  --  PRESIDENT.   Table of Contents     THE VOICE OF THE PRESS.