“Old woman,” grumbled the burly white man who had just heard
Sojourner Truth speak, “do you think your talk about slavery does any
good? I don’t care any more for your talk than I do for the bite of a
tall, imposing black woman turned her piercing eyes on him. “Perhaps
not,” she answered, “but I’ll keep you scratching.”
little incident of the 1840s sums up all that Sojourner Truth was: utterly
dedicated to spreading her message, afraid of no one, forceful and witty in
forty years earlier, who could have suspected that a spindly slave girl
growing up in a damp cellar in upstate New York would become one of the
most remarkable women in American history? Her name then was Isabella
(many slaves had no last names), and by the time she was fourteen she had
seen both parents die of cold and hunger. She herself had been sold
several times. By 1827, when New York freed its slaves, she
had married and borne five children.
first hint of Isabella’s fighting spirit came soon afterwards, when her
youngest son was illegally seized and sold. She marched to the
courthouse and badgered officials until her son was returned to her.
1843, inspired by religion, she changed her name to Sojourner(meaning
“one who stays briefly”) Truth, and, with only pennies in her purse, set
out to preach against slavery. From New England to Minnesota she trekked, gaining a
reputation for her plain but powerful and moving words. Incredibly,
despite being black and female (only white males were expected to be public
speakers), she drew thousands to town halls, tents, and churches to hear
her powerful, deep-voiced pleas on equality for blacks-and for women. Often
she had to face threatening hoodlums. Once she stood before armed
bullies and sang a hymn to them. Awed by her courage and her
commanding presence, they sheepishly retreated.
the Civil War she cared for homeless ex-slaves in Washington. President Lincoln
invited her to the White House to bestow praise on her. Later, she
petitioned Congress to help former slaves get land in the West. Even
in her old age, she forced the city of Washington to integrate its trolley
cars so that black and white could ride together.
before her death at eighty-six, she was asked what kept her going. “I
think of the great things,” replied Sojourner.
The imposing black woman promised to keep the white man-