BLACK HISTORY 2018
She was born around 1797 as Isabella Baumfree, an enslaved person on the Hardenbergh estate in Swartekill, New York. The town’s Dutch name means Black Kettle in English. Isabella spoke low Dutch as her first language. When she was sold around 1806 to an English-speaking enslaver, Isabella was beaten for not understanding instructions. Eventually, she learned English, but always spoke with a low Dutch accent. Sold in New York State once again in 1810, over the next 16 years she had five children. Escaping in 1827 with her infant daughter, she left her other children. They would become free in their twenties under New York State law. In 1828 she was the first black person to win a legal case against a white person for selling her son out of state in defiance of New York State law.
At the age of 46, in 1843, led by Spirit, Isabella changed her name to Sojourner Truth. For the next several years, she traveled the country giving speeches in support of the abolitionist, suffragist, and temperance movements and against capital punishment. She gave her famous “Ain’t I a Woman” speech at the women’s rights convention in Akron, Ohio in 1851. Though, since Sojourner Truth spoke with a low Dutch accent, she would not have used the Southern dialect attributed to her in this famous speech. By 1857 Sojourner Truth had established her home in Battle Creek, Michigan, and lived with her now freed adult daughters and grandchildren. President Abraham Lincoln received a visit from her in 1864. After a struggle–in 1865–Sojourner Truth desegregated the Washington, D.C., streetcars. When the Civil War ended, she campaigned for free land for formerly enslaved people. Despite receiving treatment earlier that year by Dr. John Harvey Kellogg of the Battle Creek Sanitarium, Sojourner Truth died in November of 1883.
from “Sojourner Truth Speeches and Commentary”
The Words of Truth Edited by Mary G. Butler
(The original article first appeared in Heritage Battle Creek: A Journal of Local History vol. 8, fall 1997.)
ON CAPITAL PUNISHMENT
Sojourner Truth spoke to Michigan’s state legislature in early June 1881. The legislative body was considering a law that would make capital punishment legal in Michigan. A reporter published a version of her speech in the Battle Creek Nightly Moon on June 8, 1881. These are excerpts from that speech.
I have come here tonight to see about a thing that fairly shocked me. It shocked me worse than slavery. I’ve heard that you are going to have hanging again in this state. Before God only think of it. When I had thought for so many years that I lived in the most blessed state in the union, and then to think of its being made the awful scene of hanging people by the neck until they are dead. Where is the man or woman who can sanction such a thing as that? We are the makers of murderers if we do it.
…But they tell me that we must abide by the public laws. I won’t sanction any law in my heart that upholds murder. I am against it! I am against it! In olden times, it was “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” but the Savior taught us better things than these and commanded us to love one another. I talk to a great many people, but none older than myself. I hate to see these younger people, who have every advantage to learn, keep traveling the road of life and filling their minds with nonsense and foolishness. When I was a child and heard about Jesus Christ, I thought he was some big man like Napoleon Bonaparte or George Washington, living off in some part of the country; but as I grew up the truth came to me, and I found out that there was a Jesus who was between me and God.
See the progression that has been made in temporal things. When I was growing up, all the way that we could travel was with oxen, horses and sloops. These things have all come for our benefit, but don’t give God any glory, or you would not want to go back to the awful system of hanging. The advocates of such a barbarous thing have murder in their hearts.
On hearing later that the bill had been defeated, Sojourner Truth was jubilant and exclaimed that Michigan was “the most blessed state in the union.”