Ms. magazine  -- more than a magazine a movement


FEATURE | September 2003

In the Footsteps of Sojourner Truth

Ms. Fall 2003

Cover of this issue

Fall 2003 Table of Contents

Buy this back issue

Join Ms. today!

Get Ms. email updates

Sign Up for Updates

Ms. Magazine Digest
Weekly News Digest

Part 1: Quaker Park to Freedman’s Village

There is something about places where great events have happened. Echoes seem to shimmer in the air, forgotten memories press themselves into our consciousness. But not now, not here.

Like a pilgrim at the grotto of some revered Madonna, I wait for a sign. I try to conjure a woman who passed this way once, to visualize the contours of her strong dark face. To imagine her indomitable being, to hear her husky voice raised in song.

It is difficult to make Sojourner Truth materialize today.

The present is unmistakably present in Quaker Park, an unremarkable cityscape, flat and featureless. Cars zoom by on adjoining streets. Teenagers on bicycles blast rap music from their boom boxes. The glaring sun threatens to burn away any whisper of history.

Sojourner Truth
Library of Congress

We stand at the site of a 19th-century Quaker meeting house – myself; my 16-year-old daughter, Adjoa; our guide, Michael Evans; and his two young sons. The fenced-in open space seems impossibly small to have been a church.

I inspect a pair of prints set in concrete at the far end.

“This is where Sojourner dedicated the third Quaker meeting house in 1871,” Michael informs us.

Broad boot prints, wide across. They might have been a man’s, or a tall, strapping woman’s. I step into the footprints of Sojourner Truth and am oddly comforted at how closely they fit mine.

The Authentic Icon

Sojourner Truth was witty, courageous and controversial- one of the most outspoken voices of her time. The older I get, the more I admire this preacher, prophet, singer and feminist abolitionist. I marvel at how she surmounted the horror of slavery, scaling the walls of injustice to create space for herself in 19th-century American life.

While struggling to make the best decisions for my own life, I find myself wondering, How would Sojourner have handled this? Would she have accepted this treatment from a lover? Been firmer with a child? More understanding to a friend? Yet as I idealize her essence, I remember she, was human. She too made questionable personal decisions. She stumbled like any of us, but always managed to pull herself up.

Tall and strong-featured myself, I've felt I resemble Sojourner in ways beyond the physical. We've both been workers in words and ideas: I as a scholar and writer, she as an unlettered intellectual who proclaimed, "I can’t read a book, but I can read de people."

In the 120 years since her death, she's grown into an icon of the black matriarch, the consummate feminist, the eternal heroine. But as an icon is magnified, its features be- gin to blur. Even if we recognize the rough outline, can we fathom its authentic identity? This is the question I ponder as I set out to retrace Sojourner's footsteps: beginning at the end, working my way back toward the beginning.

Battle Creek: The Holy City

There is a holy city,
A world of light above,
Above the starry regions
Built by the God of love.

-one of Sojourner Truth’s favorite hymns

Despite my difficulty tapping her presence in Quaker Park, the city of Battle Creek-where it's situated-is the holy grail of Sojourner Truth heritage. It abounds in sites of memory, and honors its famous citizen in regular public events.

"In the place where her body rests," says Michael Evans, senior fellow of the Sojourner Truth Institute of Battle Creek, “this is only fitting."

A charming city of manicured lawns and winding avenues, Battle Creek may have been equally idyllic in 1857, but it was the city’s progressive reputation that led Sojourner Truth to settle there. It was a center of New Age culture for its time: an Underground Railroad stop, a Quaker stronghold, the site of a short-lived spiritualist community.

The Freedom Saga Tour features African American heritage sites like Sojourner's gravesite at the Oak Hill Cemetery and an Underground Railroad statue on Linear Path. In less-than-optimal preservation conditions, The Kimball House Museum displays the original of her only known signature; an early edition of her biography, the Narrative of Sojourner Truth, and a fancy dress donated by Queen Victoria that she probably never wore. There is also Meritt House, the historic landmark where Sojourner once slept and which now houses a black medical practice.

Yet the most dramatic site is at the gateway into down- town Battle Creek. As you exit 1-94 and follow the Sojourner Truth Downtown Parkway into town, a 12-foot bronze statue springs into view. It is the major feature of Monument Park, a bust of cereal magnet C.W Post having been moved to the opposite end of the space.

What a breathtaking experience it is to stand with the sun in your eyes, a stern and stunning, twice-life-sized Sojourner looking down at you. Framed by a curved brick wall, she stands at a lectern with one arm raised, the other resting on a Bible. In contrast to the faintness of her footsteps in Quaker Park, her presence here is almost overpowering.

It is a mature Sojourner Truth, a seasoned elder, whom I meet in Battle Creek. I gaze upon her image and ponder how she journeyed this far. We've both been late bloomers, Sojourner and 1. She labored and studied and evangelized since she was about 30 years old, but didn’t find her direction until she was 46. I'd written and published since I was a child, but didn’t arrive as a writer until my mid-40s.

An African belief system suggests that after menopause a woman comes into her true power. In a small Midwestern town, in the twilight of her days, this is where Sojourner's star seems to blaze the brightest.

Akron: "Ar'n't I A Woman?"

"Dat man ober dar say dat women needs to be helped into carriages, and lifted ober ditches, and to have de best place every whar. Nobody eber help me into carriages, or ober mud puddles, or gives me any best place... and ar'n't I a woman?

"I have plowed, and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me-and aren’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man (when I could get it), and bear de lash as well-and arn't I a woman? I have borne 13 chilern and seen 'em mos' all sold off into slavery, and when I cried out with a mother's grief, none but Jesus heard. "

Akron, Ohio, is rippled with steep hills, deep valleys and stubborn myths. Its major claim to Truth is a disputed 291-word speech.

Lathardus Goggins 11 is associate director of the Office of Multicultural Development at the University of Akron. In 2001 he worked with the Dr. Shirla R. McClain Gallery of Akron's Black History and Culture to create "A Sojourn of Black Women Through Akron’s History," inspired by the 150th anniversary of the "Ain’t I a Woman?" speech. ("Ar'nt" is in the original text, but "Ain’t" has become the preferred usage.) Growing up in black Akron, Goggins heard the speech recited in school assemblies, church programs and public events throughout his life.

"We brought Nell Painter to the University of Akron when her biography first came out (Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol). She made a convincing case that Sojourner may not have spoken those exact words in that ex- act way. But our reaction here in Akron is 'So what?' When we remember Sojourner Truth and perform her in character, we're still going. To say, 'Ain’t I a Woman?"'

I imagine her striding into the Women’s Rights Convention at the Universalist Old Stone Church on High Street, where she would deliver the speech. She throws down her bonnet, demands to be heard, subdues a hostile crowd, and then electrifies them with her words.

That is the Sojourner Truth we know and love, and to have this myth challenged distresses many people-my- self included.

Comparing Truths hagiography to George Washington’s fictional cherry tree or Betsy Ross' mythical American flag, Painter claims that Sojourner "belongs to a company of 'invented greats.' ...Truth is consumed as a signifier and beloved for what we need her to have said."
Is it more important to preserve an image that uplifts and inspires, or to allow history to tell its own story? Sojourner's last name, after all, was Truth.

The proceedings of the Women's Rights Convention of 1851 make no mention of Sojourner's speech; in fact, she isn’t mentioned at all. The "Ar'nt I a Woman” account was written 12 years later by the convention chair: the writer and activist Frances Dana Gage.

It is not just the content that is challenged by scholars, but also the delivery. Sojourner was born in Dutch New York, didn’t learn English until she was 10 years old and spoke with a Dutch accent until the day she died. How could she have been so fluent in the Southern dialect that is so widely attributed to her?

There also are factual errors in Gage's account, life details that Sojourner surely would know. She gave birth to five, not 13, children and saw one-not "mos'"-of them sold away from her. A newspaper account published less than a month after the event presents it quite differently. There's no mention of Gage's stylized Negro dialect, no report of a hostile crowd trying to silence Sojourner, no man in the audience insisting that women must be helped over puddles, no bonnet throwing or muscle flexing.

Diana Dodge, president of the Ohio National Organization for Women, challenges scholars who debunk the Akron myth: "Those of us here in Akron stick with the ‘Ar'nt I a Woman’ version." Dodge believes that Frances Gage's version is reliable because "she was such a prolific note-taker. She would have been writing this all down."

Despite the controversy, Akron remains an important site of Sojourner Truth heritage. It is easy to imagine what the city looked like in 185 1. High Street would have been a dirt or gravel road plied by horse-drawn buggies and carriages. Twenty-six years old in 185 1, Akron was already a thriving canal town.

According to Lathardus Goggins, "All you see at a truck stop now, you’d see at a canal then." There would be throngs of longshoremen and stevedores and ships' crews, along with taverns, shipyards and brothels to service the trade.

The Old Stone Church is long gone. In its place stands a modern glass and concrete structure called the Sojourner Truth Building. It houses the Summit County Board of Job and Family Services. The building seems less busy than one might expect in these troubled economic times, although we visit late in the day, just before closing. A middle-aged black man leaves the building just as we approach; his T-shirt reads, "My kids think I'm an ATM."

The building constitutes Akrods only public memorial to Truth. Plans to erect a permanent monument some- where in town have stalled. The proposed location has been a source of contention, according to Diana Dodge.

"It's neglectful of Akron not to have something to honor Sojourner Truth. It's not a race thing, it's a patriarchy thing. There are certainly enough statues of African American men in this city. There's the Martin Luther King Jr. Highway, although as far as I know he was never here."
She does admit that racial politics led to her decision to step down from the chair of the Sojourner Truth Coalition, an alliance of some 25 individuals and local organizations.

"I fell into being head of the coalition because no one else wanted the job. There were problems because I was a white woman in charge. I feel that we need an African American woman at the helm, and I'm praying for that to happen."

This issue would arise again on my journey to Truth. Who owns Truth? Does race play a role in who has a right to represent her life?

I think," says Dodge after a moment of contemplation, "that Sojourner Truth would have told people to work together instead of working against each other."

A Commuter Train, En Route From Baltimore/Washington International Airport to Washington, D.C.

Having traveled for nearly a week, I am road-weary. My feet are sore from walking, my limbs stiff from sitting. Heat is a constant traveling companion during these, the hottest days of the season along the eastern seaboard.

I'm sluggish and out of shape, loathe to leave the air- conditioned comfort of hotel rooms and friends' homes.

But then, I am not here on vacation. I think of a hardy woman who tramped through cities and countryside in winter cold and summer heat well into her 80s. Who traveled without the aid of skycaps and luggage with telescoping handles. Who contended with Jim Crow segregation, was kicked off streetcars, slept beneath the stars, or depended on the kindness of strangers for a simple meal and a night's lodging.

My head is fuzzy with the flutter and chatter of fellow passengers, the rail and engine noises. I wonder what sounds might have punctuated Sojourner's roamings: the chug of ferries, the clip-clop of horses' hooves, the turning of carriage wheels? What of the long days, the heavy bags, the hunger? I feel the need to empty my bladder and wonder if this commuter train has a restroom.

Where did a traveler in need go to relieve herself back in Sojourner's day?

Washington, D.C.: No Abiding Place

I am pleading for my people-
A poor, down-trodden race,
Who dwell in freedom’s boasted land,
With no abiding place.

-a song composed by Sojourner Truth, sung to the tune of "Auld Lang Syne"

In a city rich with history and top-heavy with heroes, Sojourner's footprints have been somewhat faint in Washington, D.C.

I know that she first arrived during the Civil War, befriended White House seamstress Elizabeth Keckley, met with Abraham Lincoln, and worked with the Freedman’s Bureau, a federal agency promoting the welfare of refugee slaves.

A full century before Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Truth and other prominent black Washingtonians staged individual impromptu ride-ins on the city’s horse-drawn streetcars, actions that eventually led to the enforcement of local desegregation laws. When a white male conductor roughed her up as she tried to board at the Seventh Street Junction, Sojourner Truth had him arrested for assault and battery. I wanted to visit the spot, but had difficulty locating it, as street names and boundaries have changed greatly since the 1800s.

There are few, if any, landmarks left to point out Sojourner's passage through the U.S. capitol.

I'm hoping I'll have better luck in Virginia. I've never visited Arlington National Cemetery before, never realized it was a major tourist attraction with gift shops and a visitors center and guided tours. My old college friend Khandi has driven me down from Maryland in the broiling 100-degree sun to meet a board member of the Arlington Black Heritage Museum. We hope she will help us find Truth amidst the graves and greenery.

Sara Collins is a retired white librarian, originally from Detroit. She arrives with two black women in tow: Leslie Brown and Elinor Sinnette, both associated with the library at Howard University. We pass the grave markers of soldiers and sailors and presidents and statesmen, climbing uphill to Arlington House.

The house has been preserved as an interpretive center about plantation life, as well as a memorial to General Robert E. Lee, whose wife owned the property. But the real black history lies below the hill. Enslaved African Americans from rebel states who'd been seized as contraband of war, or fled slavery to follow the Union Army, were resettled in the nation's capital. There was a refugee community in Washington some 11,000 strong, most of them living in camps, others filtered into the general population.

At Arlington the camp was called Freedman’s Village, founded in June 1863. It featured a collection of two-story frame homes, schools, workshops, churches, hospitals, farms and a military base. Sojourner Truth, who had left 'Battle Creek for Washington to help the refugees, stayed for over a year as a teacher and counselor at Freedman's Village.

The community was ravaged by epidemics and a high death rate. There were conflicts between the refugees and white soldiers. Slavers would steal into the camp and kidnap children. When helpless mothers protested to federal troops under whose protection they lived, they’d often be thrown into the guardhouse. Sojourner advised them to not let their children be taken without protest. When she too was threatened with imprisonment, she vowed to "make the United States rock like a cradle."

The Narrative of Sojourner Truth describes her work as "instructing the women in domestic duties, and doing much to promote the general welfare. She strove to inspire them with a love of neatness and order. On the Sabbath she preached to large and attentive congregations, and was once heard to exclaim, 'Be clean! Be clean! For cleanliness is godliness."'

The relationship was not always harmonious. While some may have taken Sojourner's message to heart, others were put off by her Yankee superiority, for she would remind Washingtonians in a minute, that she hailed from "the Empire State." While the Negro dialect of the South was not her mother tongue, she admonished the Southern freed people by mimicking the way they spoke.

Refugee life is painted in Sojourner's biography with broad strokes of ignorance and indolence. It fails to acknowledge there were people who could actually read and write. Who would establish schools and farms and churches. Who amassed enough savings to buy land and build institutions in the community when Freedman’s Village was eventually dismantled and Arlington National Cemetery built. The descendants of these "first families" now form the bedrock of Arlington’s black middle class.

The south gate of the cemetery stands in stark contrast to the busy main entrance. It sits on the quiet residential intersection of Southgate Road and South Oak, right next door to the nation’s smallest Marine base. Across the street, and down the road from busy Columbia Pike, is Foxcroft Heights Park, a playground perched on a rise. The five of us huddle under shade trees to read the plaque that marks this as the site of Freedman’s Village.

"If only we could interview these old trees," Sara Collins sighs, looking around us. "I bet they’d have a lot to tell."

SANDRA JACKSON-OPOKU is a Chicago-based poet, novelist and nonfiction writer. Part 2 of this feature will appear in our Winter 2003 issue.

Read Part 2 in the Winter 2003 Issue.