A Beacon of Truth
I am so very shamefully behind on my blog writing this month, and it's doubly shameful because it's Women's History Month, when I should be inspired! All I can say for myself is that it has been busier now that the weather is improving, and so most of my extra energy has gone towards the actual business of tour guiding. This leaves me with less energy for blogging. That's my only excuse: business is getting better.
However, I cannot let Women's History Month end without a story on an immense historical figure of a woman, and one that I highlight during my most recently debuted tour "The History of Black Georgetown." She is Sojourner Truth, born Isabella Bomfree. She was born as an enslaved person in New York in 1797, thirty years before abolitionists erased slavery from that state. She was bought and sold no less than four times during her youth, eventually ending up with a cruel master who physically abused her and forced her to marry one of his own enslaved persons even though she was in love with another on a neighboring farm. She would go on to become one of the great orators fighting for the end of slavery for most of her life, going against any and all opposition in the face of two strikes against her: being both black and a woman.
She was tall (reportedly 6'), loud, and not afraid to speak her mind or stand up for herself. Her last master, John Dumont, promised that he would grant her her freedom on July 4, 1826 if she behaved herself and worked hard. She lived up to her end of the deal, but he broke his promise when the day finally came. So, she took the youngest of her five children (the others unfortunately still belonged to Dumont, though she felt she had worked for him all she was obliged to) and walked off of the farm. She made it to another farm in New York that was owned by fervent abolitionist Christians, the Van Wagoner family. When Dumont came after her, the Van Wagoners paid him $20 for Isabella's freedom. Slavery would end in New York exactly a year later. Unfortunately, Dumont took revenge on her by selling one of her sons illegally to a plantation in Alabama. She actually successfully sued him to get her son back, making her the first black woman to ever sue a white man in a United States court and win.
From then on she herself became a fervent abolitionist and women's suffragist. Her great height and strong voice gave force to her already forceful message, which she took to New York City in 1829. She obtained a job as a housekeeper for an Evangelist preacher, Elijah Pierson. She would come in contact with many of the leaders of the Evangelist community in New York, and felt called to devote her life to preaching the "truth", which for her included that all people should be free of the evil of slavery. She changed her name to "Sojourner Truth" in 1843 to honor this revelation.
She quickly won acclaim as an orator, and was introduced to fellow abolitionist Frederick Douglass in Massachusetts in 1844. She then went on to push not only for equal rights, but equal suffrage. Though she couldn't read or write she dictated her account of her life to Olive Gilbert, who put it into a book called "The Narrative of Sojourner Truth." During much of the 1850s she repeated her speech "Ain't I a Woman" to enthusiastic crowds. In one article I found from an Ohio newspaper in 1853, the reporter describes the heckling that she received when she was at a speaking engagement and was called to the podium. The article then tells with glee how she shouted the hecklers down, (describing her voice): "Ye who have not heard the roar of the cataract can form but a meager idea of the volume of sound that gushes over the audience. Imagine Trinity Church Organ...with its low bass and trumpet stops pulled out...and two men and a boy working for dear life at the bellows, and you have a gentle specimen of the angry voice of Sojourner Truth."
She would go on to meet and collaborate with Susan B. Anthony on the topic of equal rights for all men AND women. On this point, she and Frederick Douglass would later go on to clash philosophically. She wanted to push not just for an end to slavery for all, but suffrage for all, including women. Douglass was a proponent of a more incremental approach, obtaining freedom and suffrage for black men first. While they remained friends, they never saw eye to eye on this subject. During the Civil War she lived in Ohio, rallying black men to join the Union Army, and then organizing collections of supplies for black soldiers. She would eventually go down to Washington, DC to help the National Freedmen's Relief Association organize food and clothing for black refugees feeling the south. Her actions won the attention of President Lincoln, who would invite her to the White House in 1864.
It was a scene from her time at Washington, DC that I highlight during my "History of Black Georgetown" tour. Enslaved people were emancipated in 1862, but that didn't change racist attitudes overnight. The streetcar system that ran through and between Georgetown and Washington was still segregated, for the most part. However, Sojourner would defiantly take the streetcar anyway. One day, she was on a mission to Georgetown to pick up a black nurse and escort her back to one of the hospitals. After she collected the other woman, the two got onto a streetcar. Two white women boarded the car, and asked the conductor if *n----rs" ride the cars when they noticed the two other women riding in it. When the conducted nodded, the two white women started exclaiming loudly that it was a shame and a disgrace to allow "n----rs" to ride the streetcar. Not to be bullied, Sojourner exclaimed "The Streetcars were made for working white and black folks. Carriages are for ladies and gentlemen. You can take a carriage, and then you talk of a "n-----r" car!" At which point the white ladies got off at the next stop. As they left, Sojourner called after them "Goodbye "ladies"".
After the Civil War was over, Sojourner Truth lobbied for the government to give land in the West to emancipated enslaved people, but unfortunately was not successful. She moved to Michigan in 1867 to be closer to two of her daughters, who took care of her until she passed away in 1883. Frederick Douglass gave the eulogy at her funeral, a testament to the respect that he had for her whatever past differences they may have had. In it he stated, "Venerable for age, distinguished for insight into human nature, remarkable for independence and courageous self-assertion, devoted to the welfare of her race, she has been for the last forty years an object of respect and admiration to social reformers everywhere." In 2009, a bust of Sojourner Truth was established in the Capitol Visitors Center, making her the first African American woman to have her statue stand in that location.
What courage, what strength, what determination. What a woman. On this the last day of Women's History Month, I raise a glass to a someone who spent her life speaking her Truth.
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