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  --  1777 (?)--1883   Table of Contents    Illustration

Brown, Hallie Q.
Homespun heroines

- ISABELLA--SOJOURNER TRUTH -- 1777 (?)--1883
- Illustration

Sojourner Truth
The Libyan Sibyl

There was born late in the Eighteenth Century one of the most singular and impressive characters of pure African blood that has appeared in modern times in the person of the slave, Isabella. Of her early life little is known. Up to the time of her emancipation she served five masters and suffered all the hardships, deprivations and abuse common to slaves of that period.

She was married once and bore five children, all of whom were sold from her in their early life. We first see her as a slave in the state of New York. Her age is uncertain. The only event on which to build any substantial conclusion as to her age was her liberation in 1817. At this time an act went into force in the Northern States which freed all slaves who were forty years of age. Judging from this fact her birth year would probably have been 1777. According to this she was more than one hundred years old, but she lived not so much in years as in great deeds. She was called Isabella until she gained her freedom then she tells us that she asked God for a new name. She was given Sojourner because of her many wanderings and Truth because she was to preach the truth as to the iniquity of slavery, and because, as she says, "God is my master and His name is Truth and Truth shall be my abiding name until I die."

Soon after her liberation, she commenced her traveling

career as an abolitionist and developed into a noted Anti-Slavery lecturer. Side by side she stood with Frederick Douglas and in history they are the only two noted ex-slaves who were ardent workers for freedom and qualified public speakers. She was optimistic by nature and became prominent as a publicist and was readily received by Presidents and Statesmen. She became an orator of a superior type, enlisting the sympathies and effecting conviction wherever she spoke.

Few could match her earnest urgency or resist her persuasive plea. She was of that type of genius who knew without learning and understood with the certainty of instinct. She was blessed with a shrewd judgment and rare common sense. She was an ardent temperance and religious reformer and possessed a striking faith and simple piety. Many hearts which were never warmed by the eloquence of the learned were stirred by her homely renderings of the gospel.

She preached from one text as she told the renowned Dr. Beecher: "When I preaches I has jest one text to preach from and I always preaches from this one. My text is, 'When I found Jesus' ".

Nature seemed to have endowed her with the spirit of eloquence and poetry. She seemed to be clothed with a native nobility that broke down all barriers. Says Harriet Beecher Stowe: "I never knew a person who possessed so much of that subtle, controlling power called presence as Sojourner Truth." Wendell Phillips said that he has known a few words from her to electrify an audience and effect them as he never saw persons affected by another.

At a great, crowded public meeting in Faneuil Hall, Frederick Douglas was one of the chief speakers. He described the wrongs of his people, that they had no hope of justice from the white race, no possible hope except in their own right arms. They must fight for themselves and redeem themselves or it would never be done.

Sojourner was sitting there, tall and dark and in the

hush of deep feeling, after the eloquent speech of Mr. Douglas, she arose and spoke out in her deep, peculiar voice heard all over the house--"Frederick, is God dead?" The effect was electrical and thrilled through the house, changing, as by a flash, the whole feeling of that vast audience.

She made several visits to the White House to request and urge President Lincoln to enlist the free colored men of the north in defense of the Union. He gave her audience and promised to consider the matter. Shortly after, Mr. Lincoln and Congress gave consent; and Negro soldiers, north and south, were fighting for their freedom.

Sojourner continued in her work until the war of the Rebellion broke out in 1861 when she went to Washington to care for the wounded troops and to instruct and assist the newly emancipated slaves, who flocked to the Capitol, homeless, half-naked, half-starved, dirty and ragged. Through her exertions many were provided with comfortable lodgings, suitable employment and helped into a cleaner, better life.

After the close of the war, although nearly ninety years old, she continued travelling in behalf of her people, laboring in twenty-two states, speaking in Senate Chambers, halls, churches and at nearly every important convention and meeting where she endeavored to further their interest and always to large and appreciative audiences.

Presidents, Senators, Judges, Authors, Lecturers--all were proud to grasp her hand and bid her God Speed on her noble mission. By many of these her name has been made immortal. She is the Libyan Sibyl of Harriet Beecher Stowe and the ideal Sibilla Libica which the chisel of the eminent sculptor, Mr. Story, has given to the world.

She labored with William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Frederick Douglas, Harriet Beecher Stowe and other patriots in the cause of freedom. In her exhortations for the cause of truth in all things, pleading and demanding justice for her down-trodden race, she rose to the greatest heights of oratory. Her African dialect, quaint speeches

and genial ways won for her an ever willing and interested audience. Her witty sayings would make a volume of themselves, had they been preserved. Her keen wit and repartee were strong weapons in debate or argument.

She was a zealous advocate for the enfranchisement of women and claimed warm friendship with many of the noted women of that cause. In the Suffrage Convention of Akron, Ohio, in 1851, it was Sojourner Truth who saved the day and won the victory for the women.

In her travels she carried a little book which she called the Book of Life. She could neither read nor write yet she had a large and varied correspondence. In this book were recorded the names, many extracts and testimonials of distinguished men and women. Among the first and most treasured name was that of the lamented President Lincoln who wrote, "For Aunty Sojourner Truth, A. Lincoln, October 9, 1864"; also these lines, "Sojourner Truth, U. S. Grant, March 31, 1870."

Sojourner had a remarkable memory. Though a child of about six years she remembered the "dark day" of New England in 1780. She says, "The candle was lit, the chickens went to roosters crowed." She distinctly remembered seeing the soldiers of the old Revolutionary War limping about with their bandaged wounds. She often spoke of seeing the Ulster Gazette brought in draped in mourning on the death of General George Washington which occurred December 14, 1799. At that time she was a full grown woman. She says she had reached her full height, which was nearly six feet, when the first steamboat moved up the Hudson River in 1809 and that the Dutchmen were very angry because it frightened away the fishes.

She sold her biography and photographs as a means of support. Many of her photographs bear one of her characteristic sayings: "I sell the shadder to support the substance." By her own industry and gifts from personal friends she obtained a modest little home in Battle Creek, Michigan, where she lived for more than a quarter of a

  --  1777 (?)--1883   Table of Contents    Illustration