Biography of Civil Rights Activist Sojourner Truth Part 3

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


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

Eventually she became a mild opponent of the great black leader Frederick Douglass. If later he spoke of her rather disparagingly as a Negro of the uncultivated sort, it may have derived from their divergent attitudes toward abolition. In a famous confrontation at an antislavery convention, when Douglass was in despair about the prospects for black emancipation without a major slave insurrection, Sojourner Truth challenged him with the question, "Is God dead?" The difference between them was well expressed when she said to him, "You read, but God himself talks to me." Her great strength was an unfailing faith, a faith so strong against terrible adversity that it inspired countless thousands of followers.

In 1850 the Union was saved by a famous compromise that included an infamous provision called the Fugitive Slave Law, which provided for the return of runaway slaves between the states. This prevented immediate secession by the slave states, but it also aroused the abolitionists to new efforts. Sojourner Truth told her story to a white friend. Olive Gilbert, who wrote Narrative of Sojourner Truth in 1850. With an introduction by William Lloyd Garrison himself, the book was sold at meetings to raise money for the cause. Harriet Beecher Stowe, who called Sojourner "the Libyan Sibyl," was so moved by Sojourner's singing of the hymn "There Is a Holy City" that she said, "Sojourner, singing this hymn, seemed to impersonate the fervor of Ethiopia, wild, savage, hunted of all nations, but burning after God in her tropic heart and stretching her scarred hands towards the glory to be revealed."

When the Civil War broke out, Sojourner Truth raised supplies for black regiments, and in 1864 she was received by Lincoln at the White House. While she was working with newly freed blacks, whose children were still being kidnapped and taken to Maryland--a slave state--she took the time to integrate Washington's streetcars, becoming the first Freedom Rider. Indefatigable, she never ceased working for the rights of blacks and women. When someone mentioned Horace Greeley, she remarked, "You call him a self-made man; well, I am a self-made woman." The self-made woman worked to try to establish settlements for freedmen in Kansas and Missouri. She demanded the right to vote for Grant, more than half a century before women had achieved suffrage. The Sojourner Truth who had bared her breasts to prove her womanhood to a rampaging mob in Indiana fought just as hard for women's rights as she had for abolition, scolding her very allies as she had once taken Douglass to task. "You had better reform your-selves first," she said to a women's suffrage convention.

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