Community Activists: Why we chose to begin with Sojourner Truth

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Sojourner Truth is the mother of modern activism. (Courtesy Photo)

By Micha Green
AFRO D.C. Editor
mgreen@afro.com

Long before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, Ella Baker began organizing demonstrations, Harriet Tubman had spells that turned out to be divine sights, or before she famously questioned “Ain’t I a woman,” Sojourner Truth was having visions from God that began a life-long mission of freedom-fighting, preaching and advocacy for suffrage and equality. Sojourner Truth is the true mother of community activism on whose shoulders great abolitionists stood and community activists of today stand. And that’s why we chose to begin with Sojourner Truth.

Born enslaved in 1797 as Isabella Baumfree in Dutch-speaking Ulster County, N.Y., Truth was sold multiple times before being permanently separated from her family and forced into harsh environments with English speaking masters. John Dumont owned Truth from the age of 13; she eventually married an older slave, with whom she had five children. After 17 years of ownership by Dumont, Truth escaped with her infant daughter in 1826 – an act achieved with visions from God.

“So up I got, about three o’clock in the mornin’, an’ I started an’ travelled pretty fast, till, when the sun rose, I was clear away from our place an’ our folks, an’ out o’ sight. An’ then I begun to think I didn’t know nothin’ where to go. So I kneeled down, and says I,’Well, Lord, you’ve started me out, an’ now please to show me where to go,’” Truth once told Harriet Beecher Stowe in an article the Uncle Tom’s Cabin author wrote in 1863, according to The Atlantic.  “Then the Lord made a house appear to me, an’ He said to me that I was to walk on till I saw that house, an’ then go in an’ ask the people to take me. An’ I travelled all day, an’ didn’t come to the house till late at night; but when I saw it, sure enough, I went in, an’ I told the folks that the Lord sent me; an’ they was Quakers, an’ real kind they was to me.”

Though it would be a bit under two decades before her formal activism began, or official name change, Truth’s escape from slavery was her baptism into freedom and inaugration into activism.

“’My name was Isabella; but when I left the house of bondage, I left everything behind. I wa’n’t goin’ to keep nothin’ of Egypt on me, an’ so I went to the Lord an’ asked Him to give me a new name. And the Lord gave me Sojourner, because I was to travel up an’ down the land, showin’ the people their sins, an’ bein’ a sign unto them. Afterwards I told the Lord I wanted another name, ’cause everybody else had two names; and the Lord gave me Truth, because I was to declare the truth to the people.’”

Truth was a visionary in her fight, and much of her drive came from demanding justice for her children. In 1827, the year after she escaped from slavery, New York state outlawed slavery, and Truth became one the first Black women to successfully challenge a White man, and gain custody of her young son who was illegally sold to a plantation in Alabama. Beginning in 1829, Truth worked as a housekeeper in New York City for 13 years, but her activism was again ignited in 1842 when her son, who worked on a whaling ship, never returned from a mission.  It was then that she devoted her fight to equal rights.  

Truth was built for the justice fight- literally and figuratively- as she stood about six feet tall. Though she was unable to read and write, God equipped Truth with the physical and mental strength to do decades of touring and speaking from the 1840’s, past the Civil War and abolition of slavery, to the discussion of suffrage rights for women.  As leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr., did a century later, Truth used God and preaching as a means of standing up to inequality.

She urged justice at all cost, sometimes creating rifts in activism circles; like with noted abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, who felt the Black male vote was more important than suffrage for all.  Like the blunt nature of her “Ain’t I a woman,” speech, Truth did not mince words or ask for permission; she demanded what she wanted.

“‘Ef women want any rights more ‘n dey’s got, why don’t dey jes’ take ’em, an’ not be talkin’ about it,’” Truth told Stowe.

Truth opened doors, broke down barriers and created her own space at tables that normally resented her presence.  Her activism, beginning in the early nineteenth century, paved the way for leaders like Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr. and today’s advocates such as Alicia Garza and Tamika Mallory.