Biography of Civil Rights Activist Sojourner Truth Part 2

About the American civil rights activist and leader Sojourner Truth, history and biography of the former slave.

FOOTNOTE PEOPLE IN U.S. HISTORY

SOJOURNER TRUTH (1797?-1883). Civil rights activist.

Abolitionist leader Parker Pillsbury would later say of her, "The wondrous experiences of that most remarkable woman would make a library, if not indeed a literature, could they all be gathered and spread before the world." There is a mythic quality to her story, because so much of what she accomplished was so patently impossible. Her first act as a free woman was to sue for the restoration of her son, who had been sold to a wealthy Alabama planter named Fowler. The sale had been illegal under New York law, yet the ability of a penniless black woman to make the law work for her and get her boy returned from Alabama smacks of the miraculous. Such things simply did not happen in 1827, yet five-year-old Peter was actually restored to his mother.

This was not her only landmark case. She was the first black to win a slander judgment against a prominent white, a case that took place in the aftermath of the notorious Matthias Delusion. Isabella, as she still called herself, was deeply religious and influenced by visions, as evidenced by her famous opening when on the podium, "Children, I talk to God and God talks to me." Working in New York City, she became involved with a cult centered on a preacher named Elijah Pierson, in whose home she was a servant sometime between 1829 and 1832. Pierson himself came under the spell of a self-proclaimed messiah who called himself Matthias, a bizarre prophet who established a commune called Zion Hill in Ossining, N.Y., where the communal aspects soon included free love and incited a riotous carnality. It appears that Isabella and Pierson were exempt from this aspect of life at Zion Hill, but prominent New York businessman Benjamin Folger was quite definitely deeply involved. Zion Hill was so notorious that when the ailing Pierson died, his suspicious relatives suspected foul play and had his body exhumed. Some evidence of arsenical poisoning was found. Perhaps to direct suspicion from themselves, Benjamin Folger and his wife spread the rumor that Isabella had tried to poison them. Doubtless a prominent white businessman felt secure in thus slandering an obscure black woman who was an illiterate former slave. But a white jury vindicated Isabella in 1835 and awarded her $125 in damages, a significant sum.

In 1843 she felt a call to become a wandering evangelist. It was at this time that she took the name Sojourner Truth. She was one of the great public speakers in a century when oratory was a major art form. Her command of the English language was by no means grammatically correct, but she was a spellbinder whose natural eloquence moved people of every race, sex, and station in life. She became involved in the abolition movement while living at a commune in Northampton, Mass. She went on the stump for the abolitionists at a time when mob violence was commonly invoked against those who advocated so unpopular a cause.

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