Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Before Rosa Parks, Sojourner Truth - Ain't I A Woman?

Before Rosa Parks, there was Sojourner Truth.

Sojourner Truth
Sojourner Truth (1797-1883)
One of the first civil rights, woman's suffrage and anti-slavery activists was abolitionist, Sojourner Truth, whose feelings about the evils of slavery matched President Abraham Lincoln's own anti-slavery sentiments, which he began to form in his childhood. Widely advertised, Truth's speeches not only chastised America about slavery but also punctuated the difference in the positions of black and white womanhood in America. 

Sojourner Truth was born only ten years before the Founding Fathers began deliberations on a new U.S. Constitution to replace the old Articles of Confederation. She was six years old when the Bill of Rights was ratified, the document she would later use in her career to build her case for human rights.

Ten years before Union victory in the Civil War freed U.S. southern slaves under the order of the future President Abraham Lincoln, Sojourner Truth delivered her famous Ain't I A Woman? speech at the Women's Convention in Akron, Ohio, in December 1851. Sojourner Truth was as significant a figure in the anti-slavery issues of her 1850-60s generation just as Rosa Parks, the Montgomery Bus Boycott and Martin luther King were to anti-Jim Crow laws in the modern Civil Rights Movement of the 1950-60s.

Rosa Parks & E.B. Nixon Montgomery Bus Boycott
Rosa Parks & E.B. Nixon
Montgomery Bus Boycott

It seems that racism and discrimination has always been rooted in sex. 

In 1944, the rape of a 24-year-old mother and sharecropper, Recy Taylor, was walking home from Rock Hill Holiness Church in Abbeville, Alabama, when seven white men, armed with knives and shotguns, ordered her into their green Chevrolet. They raped and left her for dead. The president of the local NAACP branch office sent his best investigator and organizer to Abbeville. Her name was Rosa Parks and this was not the last battle against racism Parks would launch. The Montgomery Bus Boycott became a civil rights movement with the help of Martin Luther King that changed the world. The civil rights movement was also part of woman's a movement that began one hundred years earlier with Sojourner Truth

Sojourner Truth (1797-1883): Ain't I A Woman?

Delivered 1851, Women's Convention, Akron, Ohio
Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter. I think that 'twixt the Negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what's all this here talking about?

That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain't I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain't I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man - when I could get it - and bear the lash as well! And ain't I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain't I a woman?

Then they talk about this thing in the head; what's this they call it? [member of audience whispers, "intellect"] That's it, honey. What's that got to do with women's rights or negroes' rights? If my cup won't hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn't you be mean not to let me have my little half measure full?

Then that little man in black there, he says women can't have as much rights as men, 'cause Christ wasn't a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.

If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back , and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.

Obliged to you for hearing me, and now old Sojourner ain't got nothing more to say. 

Sojourner Truth was a slave in New York before the north freed slaves.

Sojourner Truth's Birthplace
Hardenbergh EstateUlster County, New York
Cabin Believed to Be Birthplace of Sojourner Truth
Sojourner Truth was born Isabella, around 1797 to slave parents, Elizabeth and James, from the Gold Coast of Africa. Nicknamed Betsy and Baumfree, her parents were owned by Dutch Revolutionary War Colonel, Johannes Hardenbergh of Ulster County, New York. Because they spoke only Dutch, their owners' language, they were classified as Afro-Dutch, as were many slaves on neighboring estates in that part of New York. The first U.S. Census indicates that the slave population in New York grew to 21,324 by 1790, making New York the largest slave-owning state north of the Mason-Dixon line, a distinction New York held for the two centuries the state practiced slavery: New York Slave Law Summary and Record.

After the deaths of her original owners, Isabella was sold away from her family at a New York auction. At nine years old, still speaking only Dutch, the young girl  learned English under brutal circumstances, while living through a succession of New York slave owners. For the next 20 years, until 1826, Isabella survived terror, cruelty, beatings and rape on a daily basis. One year before New York emancipated its slaves in 1827, Isabella, at age 29, planned her escape and walked away from her owners without permission, taking only her infant daughter. The rest of her children, still slaves at the time, had to be left behind with their father, a husband chosen for Isabella by their owners.

Sojourner Truth Lecture Bill

The year following Isabella's departure from her owners, New York law required slave owners in that state to free their slaves. Many former owners indentured their former property and some sold their former slaves illegally into the South where slavery was still legal. Isabella went to court to win the freedom of her 5-year-old son, who had been sold to an Alabama plantation, and became the first black woman to win such a case against a white man. All of this was taking place about the time that Thomas "Daddy" Rice was touring with his new Jim Crow minstrel show and the North was busy constructing a body of black codes to control its newly freed slaves.

In 1843, Isabella changed her name to Sojourner Truth and reinvented herself, becoming associated with a number of questionable female and male religious groups and characters for financial and moral support. Eventually, she found the message she wanted to spread--the abolition of slavery and Jim Crow laws, and women's suffrage. She began preaching the gospel, traveling and speaking about the abolition of slavery and women's rights. To increase her fame, brand her image and spread her message, Truth embraced the new services professional photographers provided, creating portable images and publication of images onto to cards with printed messages. Professional photography began in earnest in America during the Civil War when Truth was most actively seeking publicity for her lectures. To increase her income, she solicited the assistance of a white associate, Olive Gilbert, to help her write her memoir, Narrative of Sojourner Truth, a Northern Slave, Emancipated from Bodily Servitude by the State of New York, in 1828, by Sojourner Truth, introduction by anti-slavery advocate and publisher, William Lloyd Garrison.

In process of time, Isabella found herself the mother of five children, and she rejoiced in being permitted to be the instrument of increasing the property of her oppressors! Think, dear reader, without a blush, if you can, for one moment, of a mother thus willingly, and with pride, laying her own children, the 'flesh of her flesh,' on the altar of slavery–a sacrifice to the bloody Moloch! But we must remember that beings capable of such sacrifices are not mothers; they are only 'things,' 'chattels,' 'property.' But since that time, the subject of this narrative has made some advances from a state of chattelism towards that of a woman and a mother; and she now looks back upon her thoughts and feelings there, in her state of ignorance and degradation, as one does on the dark imagery of a fitful dream. One moment it seems but a frightful illusion; again it appears a terrible reality. I would to God it were but a dreamy myth, and not, as it now stands, a horrid reality to some three millions of chattelized human beings. I have already alluded to her care not to teach her children to steal, by her example; and she says, with groanings that cannot be written, 'The Lord only knows how many times I let my children go hungry, rather than take secretly the bread I liked not to ask for.' All parents who annul their preceptive teachings by their daily practices would do well to profit by her example. Another proof of her master's kindness of heart is found in the following fact. If her master came into the house and found her infant crying, (as she could not always attend to its wants and the commands of her mistress at the same time,) he would turn to his wife with a look of reproof, and ask her why she did not see the child taken care of; saying, most earnestly, 'I will not hear this crying; I can't bear it, and I will not hear any child cry so. Here, Bell, take care of this child, if no more work is done for a week.' And he would linger to see if his orders were obeyed, and not countermanded. When Isabella went to the field to work, she used to put her infant in a basket, tying a rope to each handle, and suspending the basket to a branch of a tree, set another small child to swing it. It was thus secure from reptiles and was easily administered to, and even lulled to sleep, by a child too young for other labors. I was quite struck with the ingenuity of such a baby-tender, as I have sometimes been with the swinging hammock the native mother prepares for her sick infant–apparently so much easier than aught we have in our more civilized homes; easier for the child, because it gets the motion without the least jar; and easier for the nurse, because the hammock is strung so high as to supersede the necessity of stooping.

Abraham Lincoln Note to Sojourner Truth
Abraham Lincoln's Thank You Note
to Sojourner Truth 
After White House Meeting 
Sojourner Truth became invaluable to Union Civil War efforts speaking against slavery and recruiting black troops. Truth was also active in the women's movement, advocating for the inclusion of African American women in the political struggle and the benefits for women's voting rights and legal protection under the Constitution.

Sojourner Truth described in a letter meeting Abraham Lincoln on November 17, 1864. "I must say, and I am proud to say, that I never was treated by any one with more kindness and cordiality than were shown to me by that great and good man, Abraham Lincoln, by the grace of God president of the United States for four years more. He took my little book, and with the same hand that signed the death-warrant of slavery.”

American Black History is a concise yet thorough treatment of 500 years of African American history from its origins in the civilizations of Africa through the grim early years in America and the quest for freedom and civil rights. Richly illustrated, the book vividly details the rise of slavery, abolitionist movement, Civil War, Reconstruction, blacks in U.S. wars, the Harlem Renaissance, emergence of the civil rights era and the arduous struggle for the full claims of citizenship. Lively portraits of key cultural and political figures such as Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and countless others make clear the enormous contributions of blacks in America. Tests, answer key and bibliography are included. (112 pages).

Rosa Parks, Mother of the Modern Civil Rights Movement
Rosa Parks
Sojourner Truth was like Rosa Parksseveral generations later. Igniting the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 when she and Martin Luther King were arrested for remaining in her seat after being ordered by the bus driver to move for a white rider. Both Sojourner Truth and Rosa Parks were women of conviction for their beliefs. Both women lived through their respective eras of Jim Crow laws. “People always say that I didn't give up my seat because I was tired,” Rosa Parks wrote in her autobiography, “but that isn't true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”


Sunny Nash
    Bigmama Didn’t Shop  At Woolworth’s  Sunny Nash

Hard Cover

Amazon Kindle
Sunny Nash, former nationally syndicated newspaper columnist, is the author of a nonfiction book about life before and during the Civil Rights Movement with her part-Comanche grandmother, Bigmama Didn’t Shop At Woolworth’s, selected by the American Association of University Presses as a Book for Understanding U.S. Race Relations, and recommended by the Miami-Dade (Florida) Public Library System for Native American Collections.

Sunny Nash earned a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism & Mass Communication, Texas A&M University; Postgraduate Media Studies Certificate, Cronkite School of Journalism & Mass Communications, Arizona State University; Postgraduate Diploma, Instructional Technology, University of California, San Diego; Constitution Studies, James Madison’s Montpelier Center for the Constitution; and Postgraduate Digital Literacy Certificate, Simmons College Graduate School of Library & Information Science, Boston. Sunny Nash’s international studies include Intellectual Property Law, World Intellectual Property Organization Academy, Geneva, Switzerland; Diplomacy, Culture and Communication, United Nations; Research Methodology, Digital Preservation, Online Archival Information Systems, University of London; and Archival Data Governance, National Archives of Australia, Melbourne. 

© 2017 Sunny Nash. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. 
~Thank You~

Sunny Nash – Race Relations in America


  1. I just finished re-watching the Underground Railroad.Wow and I saw this...Truly enjoyed reading your blog.Sojourner Truth is one of my many "Shero's" sometimes life makes me stop and ask myself that very same question Ain't I A Woman....Peace

    1. Thank you. Yes, Sojourner Truth is still very relevant. I hope you will come back, explore my older posts and read more. Please join my blog to get regular updates. Thanks again.

  2. I remember reading "Ain't I a Woman" in elementary school. Thanks for the nostalgia.

    1. I read it when I was young, too. Think how much agony went into its writing. I have a greater appreciation for it now. Please visit again and join my blog.


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