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Historical Motherhood Series: Sojourner Truth

by Guest Blogger on January 23, 2013

This post is by Kristen Levithan, Happiest Mom contributor and blogger at Motherese. You can read previous historical motherhood posts by clicking here.

One of my New Year’s resolutions is to show more gratitude for the life that I have – even on the days when piggyback ear infections, grocery store meltdowns, and broken washing machines threaten to derail me. In the wake of Sandy Hook, I have tried to be more mindful of the blessings of my life and the ways in which even my bad days are lucky ones. Learning more about the life of Sojourner Truth, African American abolitionist and women’s rights activist, and the ways in which she had to fight for her own freedom and that of her children is another reminder of how good I have it.

Sojourner Truth was born Isabella Baumfree in or around 1797. One of ten or twelve children, she was born into slavery in New York. After her master died when she about nine, she was sold away from her family – along with a flock of sheep. By 1810, she had been sold twice more, eventually coming under the ownership of John Dumont. Although Dumont was not generally a cruel master, his wife found many ways to harass her and make her life more difficult.

Around 1815, Truth met and fell in love with Robert, a slave from a nearby farm. Robert’s master forbade the relationship: he didn’t want Robert fathering the children of a slave he didn’t own because then he wouldn’t be able to claim the children as his own property. Despite Robert’s owner’s wishes, Truth and Robert did have two children: Diana and Thomas (who died shortly after his birth). In about 1817, Robert’s master’s cruelty reached new depths: he and his son set upon Robert while he was going to visit Truth and gave him a beating so bad that he eventually died from his injuries. Soon thereafter, Dumont forced Truth to marry one of his own slaves. The couple had three children, Peter, Elizabeth, and Sophia.

During these years, the state of New York was moving closer and closer to abolishing slavery. John Dumont promised Truth that he would reward her years of devoted service by granting her freedom a year before the state’s official emancipation date of July 4, 1827. He later went back on his word and so Truth escaped one morning before dawn with her infant daughter Sophia. According to Truth, “I did not run off, for I thought that wicked, but I walked off, believing that to be all right.” After wandering and praying for direction, she was taken in by a progressive couple, Isaac and Maria Van Wagener, who insisted that Truth call them by their given names rather than the more standard “master” and “mistress.” Dumont soon caught up with Truth and threatened to take Sophia if Truth did not return with him to his farm. The Van Wageners then offered to compensate Dumont for Truth’s services until the state-wide emancipation became official.

Truth soon learned that Dumont had illegally sold her five-year-old son Peter to a slave owner in Alabama where emancipation showed no signs of coming soon. Horrified and declaring, “I’ll have my child again,” Truth petitioned Dumont and Peter’s new owner to get her son back – all to no avail. Eventually, she was referred to a group of Quakers who took on her case and helped her file an official grievance in court. In order to free Peter, Truth first had to prove that she was indeed his mother. After months of proceedings, Truth got her son back – and, in doing so, became one of the first black women in American history to win a case against a white man and proving that, in this instance, a mother’s claim was more important than a master’s.

While with the Van Wageners, Truth had a sort of religious awakening and became a devout Christian. After years of supporting herself and her children with odd jobs and work as a housekeeper, she eventually felt called to preach. She became a Methodist, changed her name to “Sojourner Truth,” and took to the road, traveling and speaking out for abolition, pacifism, religious tolerance, and women’s rights. While preaching and living in communities of like-minded activists, she became a well-known speaker and interacted with such notable figures as Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Truth delivered her best known speech, “Ain’t I a Woman?” in 1851 at a women’s rights convention in Ohio. In it she questioned the dominance of white men over women of all races:

I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery [as far as the historical record shows, Truth only had five children], and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?

Then they talk about this thing in the head; what’s this they call it? [member of audience whispers, “intellect”] That’s it, honey. What’s that got to do with women’s rights or negroes’ rights? If my cup won’t hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn’t you be mean not to let me have my little half measure full?

Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.

If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.

Eventually, Truth recruited African American soldiers for the Union Army in the Civil War – her grandson James enlisted in the Massachusetts 54th, the regiment immortalized in the film Glory – and, afterward, worked to obtain government land grants for former slaves. Late in life, Truth traveled the country with her grandson Sammy, speaking out in favor of temperance and against capital punishment. Well into her 80s, she spent a year living among and trying to gain support for the “Exodusters,” freed slaves who resettled in the west. She died in 1883 with her daughters Diana and Elizabeth at her side.

In a new year when I am trying to remember to count my blessings, I give thanks for women like Sojourner Truth whose strength and devotion to their children under the most difficult circumstances remind me of the tough stuff of which mothers are made.

Editor’s Note: Are you enjoying Kristen’s posts? Be sure to check out the series of profiles on mother-writers she recently launched on her own blog!

Additional Sources: Christina Accomando, “Demanding a Voice among the Pettifoggers: Sojourner Truth as Legal Actor,” MELUS, Vol. 28, No. 1 (Spring 2003): 61-86; Carleton Mabee, “Sojourner Truth, Bold Prophet,” New York History, Vol. 69, No. 1 (January 1988): 55-77; Nell Irving Painter, “Representing Truth,” The Journal of American History, Vol. 81, No. 2 (September 1994): 461-492.

Image: Sojourner Truth, albumen silver print, circa 1870 by Randall Studio via Wikimedia Commons.

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{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Shannon @nwaMotherlode January 23, 2013 at 12:14 pm

Love this post, Kristen. Thanks for the reminder.

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Kristen January 24, 2013 at 1:23 pm

Thanks, Shannon! I’m glad you enjoyed it.

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Nina January 23, 2013 at 2:32 pm

I’m often reminded of how lucky I am whenever I hear about other kids in worse situations than my own. Even though my kid is sick right now, I’m still so thankful for so many things in life, as there is always something to be grateful for.

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Kristen January 24, 2013 at 1:26 pm

Sending speedy recovery wishes to your house, Nina!

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Meagan Francis January 23, 2013 at 5:22 pm

Love this post, Kristen, and I learned a lot from it. Thank you!

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Andrea January 24, 2013 at 9:24 am

Wow, what an amazing woman. Thanks, Kristen, for sharing her story and reminding us how blessed we are indeed.

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slamdunk January 24, 2013 at 9:39 am

I only knew a little about Sojourner, Kristen, so thanks for the message. I enjoy finding inspirational people like her; especially through reading history.

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Melissa January 24, 2013 at 11:02 am

Thank you for this gift of perspective this morning.

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Christie January 24, 2013 at 2:27 pm

This series is amazing. I couldn’t read all of this because selling children from their mama’s is too much. But it’s a beautiful and educational post. Also– I always thought she lived in the south.

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Kristen January 25, 2013 at 10:53 am

I did too! I think my mind automatically goes to images of antebellum plantations when I think about slavery, but Sojourner Truth’s story is a good reminder of the prevalence of slavery even in the Northeast.

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Amanda January 24, 2013 at 4:09 pm

It’s so easy to move through life looking ahead, always ahead. The richness of our history is something we should allow to thread through our life more. Thank you for this.

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poppyseed January 26, 2013 at 3:04 am

I didn’t like this post. It struck resentment and rage inside of me. This is maybe from direct experiences I have had with women who consider themselves…lucky, luckier, better-off, better than me. They use this idea to gloat their worldview over me.
I remember sitting in a cafeteria in town- mostly white. There were women sitting and talking, one was talking about the trouble she was having with her child in school. She then looks over at me and says something to the effect that ‘she doesn’t have it as bad as some’.
I don’t agree with this worldview. As an African American women, you should know I am so thankful of the people I come from and the legacy that we leave behind. Many African Americans are descendants from the biblical Hebrews in the bible. Who were prophesied to be brought over IN SHIPS and sold into slavery. This God of the bible promised to recompense, the holders of these captured people, with a punishment of all punishments.
I’m lucky to not be a part of a people to have to duck from God. :)

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Kristen January 26, 2013 at 9:46 am

I would have been furious at that comment from the woman in the cafeteria and I agree with you that her worldview is insidious. However, I think there’s a pretty big gulf between judging someone you don’t know based on prejudice and what I’m doing here. As a historian and a mother, I often feel fortunate for the relative ease with which I live and raise my kids when compared with the generations of women who’ve come before me. I would never look at someone I don’t know and presume that I’m more fortunate than she; I have no problem, however, counting my blessings in the face of historical evidence.

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poppyseed January 26, 2013 at 2:15 pm

Well what about in the face of “statistical evidence”? That’s where people get their prejudice justification from. It’s still a matter of worldview. And part of my passion is that I have always thought it was strange and wrong to need to have to look at someone else in order to feel better about your situation. I’ve always questioned the mentality of our culture telling us ‘someone always has it worse so be thankful’. I’ve never thought that was moral, and I could see that it breeds pretentiousness.
There is a large cloud hovering over our culture where women feel elated over not being other women and they have never stop for a second to think, there are other worldviews. I count my blessing based on my desires and the eternal centeredness from within. Anything else seems a distortion. Also this is the same mentality that drives the entertainment industry and has women fawning over “stars!”.
To a historian, remember Queen Elizabeth I bragging about having a bath once a month “whether I need it or not”. Her gloating was based solely on the fact that others (around her) were rarely ever able to have a bath. But she was still dirty- nasty and needed to wash herself.
I appreciate that you study history and compare and are thankful. It’s the cloud over this culture that needs to be defused. I’m not trying to change anyone’s moral code. I just want to offer, that there are different realities.

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Meagan Francis January 26, 2013 at 2:33 pm

Hmm….I think you can look to individuals, and groups of people, from history and appreciate the rich legacy they left behind…and STILL feel fortunate that the circumstances that made their lives so difficult are now different. Is there really a worldview that thinks slavery and forced separation from your children could be a good thing? It’s not about feeling better than anyone else, it’s about recognizing that some circumstances are terribly difficult. I’m not sure how anyone could read Kristen’s piece or the comments afterward as gloating.

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poppyseed January 26, 2013 at 9:26 pm

“Is there really a worldview that thinks slavery and forced separation from your children could be a good thing?”
Of course it wasn’t a good thing. But what’s better being the people who did it or being the people who it was done to?

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Lady Jennie January 27, 2013 at 3:42 am

What an incredible woman. I love the last paragraph of what she wrote. She is so inspiring and determined!

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Laurane January 27, 2013 at 9:38 am

“Beautiful”

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