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Sojourner Truth, d. 1883 and Olive Gilbert
Narrative of Sojourner Truth, a Northern Slave, Emancipated from Bodily Servitude by the State of New York, in 1828
Boston: The Author, 1850.

Summary

Sojourner Truth (ca. 1799-1883) is renowned for her work as an itinerant preacher and public speaker. During the nineteenth century, she was best known for her spontaneously devout reply to Frederick Douglass's 1847 suggestion that God had abandoned African Americans: "Frederick, is God dead?" Truth is remembered today for another rhetorical question she asked at a convention of women's rights advocates in 1850. Suggesting that the feminist movement had marginalized African American women, Truth asked the convention of suffragists, "Ar'n't I a woman?" Made famous by Harriet Beecher Stowe in an 1863 Atlantic Monthly article, Truth was dubbed the "Libyan Sibyl" and became a national icon of the evangelical and abolitionist movements.

Olive Gilbert (1801-1884) met Sojourner Truth during their mutual membership in the Northampton Association, a utopian community based on the philosophy of Charles Fourier and located in what is now Florence, Massachusetts. Gilbert began taking dictation for Truth's Narrative (1850) after the Northampton Association disbanded in 1846 but spent almost two years during her service as Truth's amanuensis in Daviess County, Kentucky, observing the realities of slave life firsthand. When she returned to Massachusetts from Kentucky, Gilbert finished composing the Narrative and published it in 1850 with a preface by her friend William Lloyd Garrison. The 1850 edition of Truth's Narrative also reprints a portion of Theodore Weld's American Slavery as It Is (1839) in an appendix. Subsequent editions of the Narrative replace Weld's contribution with a selection of Truth's correspondence and an account of her later life and death.

Given the name Isabella by her parents, Truth is born into slavery, the property "of one Colonel Ardinburgh, Hurley, Ulster County, New York" (p.13). Her parents are already old when she is born, and when Charles Ardinburgh dies approximately nine years later, no one will buy them at the estate's auction. They are manumitted to avoid the expense of feeding them. Because of her youth, Isabella is sold "with a lot of sheep" for "the sum of one hundred dollars" (p. 26). Her new master, John Nealy, whips her frequently "with a bundle of rods, prepared in the embers, and bound together with cords" (p. 27), and Isabella prays for a new master. Her prayer is answered when a fisherman and tavern owner named Scriver buys her from Nealy, and Isabella recalls that "though it seems curious, I do not remember ever asking for any thing but what I got it. And I always received it as an answer to my prayers" (p. 27). Isabella describes Scriver as a relatively humane master and would have been content to remain at his tavern. But when John Dumont offers Scriver seventy pounds for Isabella in 1810, he accepts.

Dumont inspires trust and admiration in Isabella, whose "ambition and desire to please were so great, that she often worked several nights in succession" in order to please the man "she looked upon . . . as a God" (p. 33). Isabella remains devoted to Dumont even after she is mocked by other slaves and whips her five children when they steal extra food. In recognition of her dedicated service, Dumont promises to release Isabella from slavery in 1827, one year before her state-mandated manumission. When Isabella requests her release on the appointed date, however, Dumont refuses. Isabella leaves Dumont and walks to the home of Isaac Van Wagenen, but she does not try to hide. Instead, when Dumont demands her return, Van Wagenen pays him for her last year of service, and because Isabella is legally Van Wagenen's property when she is freed, she acquires the Van Wagenen surname.

Isabella's first action as a free woman is to sue Solomon Gedney, a wealthy white member of the bourgeoisie, for the recovery of her son Peter, whom he had sold out-of-state illegally. With the help of lawyers, she obtains Peter's freedom and takes him to New York City. There, Truth works as a housekeeper for Elijah Pierson and becomes the personal maid of Robert Matthews, the self-proclaimed prophet Matthias and physical reincarnation of God the Father. When Pierson dies and Matthews's following disperses, Isabella becomes a Millerite and adopts their belief that Christ's Second Coming will occur in 1843. She leaves New York City—"what seemed to her a second Sodom"— on June 1, 1843, stopping only to inform her landlady "that her name was no longer Isabella, but SOJOURNER" and that the Spirit had moved her to become an itinerant preacher (p. 100).

Truth travels through the countryside, calling the populace to repentance and explaining "her own most curious and original views" to anyone who will listen, and "when she arose to speak in their assemblies, her commanding figure and dignified manner hushed every trifler into silence" (pp. 101, 113-14). She teaches in camp meetings that "Jesus is the same spirit that was in our first parents, Adam and Eve, in the beginning, when they came from the hand of their Creator" and chastises other preachers who advise their listeners to wait for the Second Coming (p. 69). When a preacher claims that the righteous will be "changed in the twinkling of an eye," Truth retorts, "If the Lord should come, he'd change you to nothing! . . . You seem to be expecting to go to some parlor away up somewhere, and when the wicked have been burnt, you are coming back . . . I am not going away; I am going to stay here and stand the fire, like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego!" (pp. 111-112). In this and other exchanges, Truth suggests that the adversities of slavery have prepared her for spiritual trials in a way that white preachers could not understand.

In 1843, Truth joins the Northampton Association, where she dictates her story to Gilbert. She hopes to duplicate the commercial success of Frederick Douglass's Narrative (1845), because she has "set her heart upon having a little home of her own" and is "dependent on the charities of the benevolent" (p. 121). Truth's confidence was rewarded: she was able to buy a house with the proceeds from her autobiography, and she spent the balance of her life in relative comfort.

Works Consulted: International Genealogical Index, 1988 Edition, Salt Lake City, UT: Family History Library, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints; Painter, Nell Irvin, Sojourner Truth, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1996.

Zachary Hutchins

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