May 29, 2020
Isabella entered the stage as the crowd cheered her appearance. Despite not being scheduled to speak, she eagerly accepted the invitation upon her arrival to address the audience. Gaining everyone’s attention, she inquired, “May I say a few words?” Following a resounding, “Yes,” Isabella continued.
“I want to say a few words about this matter. I am a woman’s rights.”
Born into slavery, Isabella Baumfree’s actual birthday is unknown as was common for slaves, but her birth year is believed to be around 1797. Isabella’s father, James Baumfree, was captured in modern-day Ghana and sold into slavery in the states. Likewise, her maternal grandparents were from Guinea and their daughter Elizabeth, otherwise known as Mau-Mau Bet, was born into slavery. Isabella joined her family in the town of Swartekill, in Ulster County, New York, yet most of her older siblings had already been sold away with the rest leaving while she was an infant. Many at the time, including some abolitionists, believed slaves were incapable of loving their children. It was nothing more than an appalling lie to ease the conscious of allowing the separation of slave families with such ease. (see ) Growing up, Isabella never forgot the pain in her mother’s voice when talking about her children she would never see again.
When Isabella was 9 years old, her owner died. The family sold off the slaves, including Isabella and her younger brother, yet their father was of failing health and going blind. Having been a faithful slave, the family decided to pull Elizabeth off the auction block and offer both of them freedom if she accepted the responsibility of taking care of James, of which the couple eagerly agreed.
The life of a slave could have turned Isabella into a cold, hard person. Fortunately, her mother taught her something that rescued her: faith. Elizabeth continually instructed her daughter to turn to the Lord in prayer as nothing was too big for Him to handle. Her mother’s vital teachings saved Isabella with her new owners.
Raised with Dutch speaking owners, Isabella often received beatings for not understanding orders now barked to her in English. The young child embraced her mother’s teachings, building a little altar in the woods to which she would often run and pray. Unfortunately, she thought her prayers had to be audible, not realizing God was able to hear her cries and pleas of her thoughts. Regardless, she contended God answered all her prayers, including sending her a new master.
She had a few masters before ending up with the Dumont’s. While Mr. Dumont treated Isabella as humanly as slaves could expect to be treated, Mrs. Dumont searched for every reason to deem her paid, white servant as superior to Isabella. Fortunately, Mr. Dumont defended Isabella, which persuaded her to do good work for him.
As she matured, Isabella fell in love with Robert, a slave from another farm. While it was not uncommon for slaves from different owners to marry after gaining permission, Robert’s master forbid the two from seeing each other, knowing any children born to the union would belong to Dumont. (see , , and ) Following a severe beating for secretly visiting Isabella while she was ill, Robert never came by again and took another wife. Isabella married Thomas, another Dumont slave many years her senior, who was married twice before. As slave marriages were not legally recognized, it is believed his previous wives were sold off before encouraging Thomas to take another ‘wife’. They had five children, yet many surmise the oldest was truly Robert’s.
During her time with the Dumonts, New York’s State Congress worked on emancipation legislation, resulting in full freedom for all slaves occurring on July 4, 1827. Dumont promised Isabella, “if she would do well and be faithful,” he would release her on July 4, 1826, a full year before the official emancipation. When the day approached, he reneged on giving “free papers” to the woman who had become so loyal to him. The experience woke her from her trance of devotion to Dumont and her acceptance of slavery.
Isabella continued on with the Dumonts, but only to fulfill what she believed to be her duty left to him. She then did what she always did, she turned to God for his guidance. Upon receiving an answer, one morning before dawn, she collected her infant child Sophia and the few possessions she had, walked out the back door and never looked back. As the feeling of freedom embraced her with every step, it was also painful leaving her other children behind as legally they still belonged to Dumont. Despite the horrible and unfair treatment she received as a slave, Isabella refused to go against God and take what was not hers, including food for her starving children or her children themselves.
When far enough away, she stopped to catch her breath, feed her daughter, and figure out her next step. During another prayer to God, He revealed her next move. She continued on, ending up at the home of Isaac and Maria Van Wagener, who eagerly took them in. As anticipated, Dumont soon arrived and demanded Isabella return with him. Refusing, Isabella declared, "I did not run away; I walked away by day-light, and all because you had promised me a year of my time." Van Wagener then stepped in. A man against slavery, he offered to purchase her remaining service time so she did not have to go back. With months left until emancipation, Dumont agreed to $20 for Isabella and $5 for Sophia and left. Van Wagener then turned to Isabella and informed her she was not to call him master saying, “There is but one master; and he who is your master is my master.” God again had delivered her.
Shortly before she left Dumont’s, her 5-year-old son Peter had been sold. He was passed around to a few family members, the last being a wealthy planter in Alabama. As the law prohibited the sale of slaves outside of the state, Isabella immediately set out to find the man who illegally sold her son. With the help of the Van Wagener's, she sued the man, becoming the first black woman to sue and win against a white man. Peter was returned to his mother.
While her mother instructed her often of God, Isabella’s understanding of His son, Jesus Christ and his true purpose and deity was vague. In her youth of life and Biblical understanding, her prayers and petitions often concluded with promises of her good behavior. However, by end of day, she faced the failures of her part of the bargain. During her time at the Van Wagener’s, a vision of God appeared to her which opened her eyes to His awesomeness and to the true depth of her sinfulness. Realizing she was not worthy to be in God’s presence, Isabella immediately knew she needed a mediator, to which a ‘friend’ appeared between her and her maker. As she repeated, “I know you and I don’t know you,” her heart cried out, “Who are you?” The vision replied, “It is Jesus."
Until now, she heard Jesus’ name, but considered him no more than an esteemed gentlemen such as President George Washington or Marquis de Lafayette. (see , , and ) Yet here was this man in front of her, emitting only love to Isabella, ready to reconcile her to God, her maker and judge, a feat she knew was unobtainable by herself. Following that day, at her frequent church and Bible meetings, the fullness of Christ was slowly revealed.
Isabella’s original intention was to raise her children with her husband after they were all set free. Once her time was up with the Van Wagener’s due to the state’s full emancipation on July 4, 1827, things had changed so much their dream was not impossible. With two children to provide for, she moved to New York often finding servant work and usually living in her employers' homes. Attending several churches during her time in New York, she joined a religion for a time that was considered a cult. Another couple in the cult accused the leader, Robert Matthews with Isabella’s assistance, of poisoning her previous employer. After Matthews was acquitted, and thus Isabella, she sued the accusing couple of liable and won in the 1830’s, another first for a black woman.
Isabella lived and worked for years in New York yet seemed to never get ahead even for a moment. Reflecting on life there, she concluded the city was full of robbery and dishonesty where “the rich rob the poor, and the poor rob one another.” She realized she participated in the latter by taking jobs from others in need. After much thought, she packed her few belongings in a pillowcase, gathered a few provisions in a basket, bid New York good-bye, and headed east.
Leaving the morning of June 1, 1843, she informed a friend, “The Spirit calls me there (east), and I must go.” With a new purpose, she took a new name: Sojourner Truth. Escaping what she considered a second Sodom, she consciously avoided looking back for fear of having the same fate as Lot’s wife. Like the disciples, she took few supplies and put all faith and trust in the Lord to guide and protect her on her journey of spreading the Gospel and abolishing slavery.
Isabella made her way to Florence, Massachusetts, where she helped establish the town as an antislavery center with other important abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and Wendell Phillips. (see , , , and ) The town soon became an important stop on the Underground Railroad. (see )
By 1850, Isabella had established herself as a powerful voice for abolition and woman's suffrage, earning her many invitations to speak at conventions. That same year, Garrison published her autobiography The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave, of which he wrote the preface. She spoke proper Dutch and English but could not read or write a word of it. Therefore, she dictated her story to Olive Gilbert, who penned her words for her.
During an 1851 speaking tour with abolitionist George Thompson, they attended the Women's Convention in Ohio. Invited to speak once she arrived, Sojourner delivered her most famous speech on May 29, 1851. Isabella’s friend Marius Robinson transcribed her speech and published it on June 21 in his Ohio newspaper, the Salem Anti-Slavery Bugle. However, he admitted his editorial could not convey the powerful effect her speech had on her audience.
Over time, several versions of her speech were printed with the earliest ones penned by spectators. The speech eventually took on a Southern dialect including strong southern phrases and words that would have never escaped Truth’s lips.
The world knows her speech today as "Ain't I a Woman?" from an interpretation by Francis Gage published in The New York Independent a decade after Truth gave it. An advocate of women's rights, many contend she rewrote Sojourner's words so as not to offend the white audiences she was trying to persuade. It is likely she felt that they would not accept Robinson's proper English version, which accurately states, “I am a woman’s rights,” as being a legitimate speech from a former slave, an ironic twist of the truth.
Gage's rendition came as a response to an article by Harriet Beecher Stowe in The Atlantic, which included a story from Wendell Phillips regarding Truth and Douglass. (see and ) In an 1862 meeting, Douglass entertained the idea of blacks obtaining their freedom by force. In response to the idea, Truth asked, "Frederick, is God dead?" cementing Truth as an arbiter of nonviolence and putting her faith in God's power to put things right. (see ) Douglass confirmed the event in his 1895 autobiography.
When the Civil War broke out, Truth joined other black abolitionists such as Harriet Tubman, John S. Rock, Hiram Rhodes Revels, and Frederick Douglass in recruiting black troops for the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment and other units. (see , , , , and ) The first Negro regiment officially recognized in the Union Army, Truth’s grandson, James Caldwell, and two of Douglass’ sons joined this now historic unit. Led by Robert Gould Shaw, their story was shared in the 1989 movie Glory. In addition to recruiting, Truth also gathered food and supplies for Union Negro regiments.
Upon hearing of her speeches and her work, the White House invited Truth to come and meet Abraham Lincoln, which she did on October 29, 1864. During her visit, Lincoln shared with her the Bible he received from the black citizens of Baltimore. While in Washington, she pushed the line on segregated streetcars, several times riding “white” cars in protest, 90 years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus. (see )
Following the war and the abolition of slavery due to the , Truth and fellow activists continued their struggle for suffrage for blacks and women. While all wanted both goals, tensions soon appeared between the leaders. Douglass feared they could not get all at once, putting his efforts behind black males first, which was achieved in 1869 with the . He believed it was better that all males have a voice as apposed to only all whites, which Truth could not support. She met women’s rights activists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, yet soon distanced herself from them as Staton would not support black suffrage without the woman’s vote. (see and )
Truth championed other causes, such as trying to secure federal land grants for former slaves. Meeting with President Ulysses S. Grant in 1870, she was unsuccessful in persuading Congress to give their support. As the Reconstruction Era ended, Truth encouraged the 1879 Exodus to Kansas of tens of thousands of former slaves. Called Exodusters, they fled north to avoid Jim Crow laws and southern Democrat persecution, believing God had a better plan for her people. (see , , and ) She boldly attempted to vote in the 1872 presidential election, but was turned away.
When participating in public events, a satin sash donned her chest with the same verse printed on the Liberty Bell, “Proclaim liberty throughout the land unto the inhabitants thereof.” (see ) She fought hard for liberty for all, yet she never saw her goal of women’s suffrage. On November 26, 1883, Sojourner Truth peacefully declared, “Be a follower of the Lord Jesus,” and then went home to meet Him. Her body was buried at Oak Hill Cemetery in Battle Creek, Michigan, where she settled in 1857. Her tombstone is engraved with the words, “Is God Dead?" It also records her as being 105 years old, but only the Lord knows the true length of her life.
Liberty, there was a definite divide within the abolitionist movement. While they were all fighting for the same goal, some thought that fight had to be physical. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960's experienced that same division as displayed in Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. (See ) Another civil war is boiling up within America right now.
As I am writing you this letter, riots are breaking out all over this country over the death of a black man by a white police officer. When the video first broke a few days ago, everybody agreed the accused cop’s behavior was inexcusable, as well as the three other cops that stood by and did not intervene. They were immediately terminated and the main officer was charged today in the victim’s death. Protests started, which people understood and agreed with. But now blocks in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where the incident occurred, have been burned to the ground. Other cities, including ours, are watching as mobs of people make their way through the streets causing destruction and chaos as anarchy groups, like Antifa and Black Lives Matter (BLM), highjack peaceful protests to force their own agenda. (see and ) Organizing for years, they’ve been waiting for a spark to ignite the powder key they’ve been stoking for years.
To achieve their goal, agitators have prepared for a violent revolution. We have known this for quite some time as they proudly admit it. Yet as we watch and wonder what is going to happen to America as cities begin to burn across the country, I find comfort in Truth’s question, "Is God dead?” The answer is a resounding, “No!” This means we don’t have to use violence because the living God will fight the battle if we just hand it over to Him. Despite beatings, starvation, and being a slave, Truth continually turned to God, who answered every prayer and rescued her from her trials. Martin Luther King echoed her faith and commitment to non-violence and he won the Civil Rights Movement. (see ) As Satan moves in for the kill today, we have the comfort of knowing love has won before and love will win again.
Millions are praying across the country for America, Liberty. They are praying for your future. May God hear our prayers as He heard Truth’s, and give us the guidance we so desperately need.
That’s my 2 cents.
IS GOD DEAD?