(Note: Monday marked the anniversary of Sojourner
Truth’s death. Accounts say her funeral was the largest Battle Creek — where she
spent the last years of her life — had ever seen, but few know about the
free-market principles that drove this woman in her fight for equality before,
during and after the Civil War. A version of this commentary was originally
published as a Viewpoint on Feb. 1, 1999.)
Born a slave in Ulster County, New York, Sojourner
Truth (1797-1883) actually grew up with the name Isabella. In her youth, she had
several masters, one of whom beat her and scarred her for life. In 1826, when
her master John Dumont reneged on a promise to free her, Isabella ran away and
began working for the Van Wagenens, a nearby Quaker family. When the angry
Dumont found her, the Van Wagenens paid him $20 and secured her freedom.
In 1827, after New York abolished slavery, Dumont
sold Isabella’s son Peter to a family in Alabama. When Isabella protested this
sale, two white lawyers in New York gave her free legal help and liberated Peter
through the courts.
Isabella became fascinated by the notion that black
and white could work together to fulfill the goals of the Declaration of
Independence — the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all
Americans. In her middle age, Isabella changed her name to Sojourner Truth and
worked with whites and blacks all over the country to abolish slavery. She moved
to Battle Creek in 1857 and soon became active there helping blacks escape to
freedom on the Underground Railroad. She never learned to read or write, but a
white friend helped her tell her life story in "Narrative of Sojourner Truth,"
which sold widely to readers throughout the North.
In her speeches, Sojourner Truth captivated
audiences by revealing how cruel slavery could be. A convert to Christianity,
she taught a message of freedom for blacks mingled with forgiveness — not hatred
or violence — toward whites. Frederick Douglass, the famous ex-slave, praised
her as "honest, industrious, and amiable" as well as "remarkable" for her
"independence and courageous self-assertion." Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author
of "Uncle Tom’s Cabin," called Sojourner a "shrewd" woman with more "personal
presence" than anyone she had ever known. During the Civil War, Sojourner even
had a cordial meeting with President Abraham Lincoln: She called him a "Daniel
in the lions’ den" fighting to secure liberty and justice for all citizens.
When the Civil War ended, and slavery with it,
Sojourner Truth moved to Washington, D.C., for three years to join the
Freedmen’s Bureau, which was created to help blacks adjust to and protect their
new freedoms. She protested segregation — especially old laws that kept blacks
from riding streetcars — and was influential in changing those laws to integrate
the streetcars in the nation’s capital before moving back to Battle Creek.
Sojourner insisted that blacks use their freedom in
responsible ways. She stressed the need for blacks to be industrious and prove
their value to society. In a speech at a temporary relief camp, she told blacks
to "Get off the government and take care of [your]selves." She was especially
critical of those blacks who one week would take charity boxes of clothes, sent
by Northern whites to Washington, and then the next week would return to "grab"
more. Such behavior, she insisted, made blacks "worse off . . . than in
The opportunities that freedom brings, not special
privileges or government handouts, were what she wanted for blacks after the
The life of Sojourner Truth— from slave to author
to acclaimed public speaker to defender of liberty with responsibility — was
truly a sojourn to find the truth. And in the process she joined with whites and
other blacks to make America a freer country for all citizens.
Dr. Burton. W. Folsom is a history professor at Hillsdale
College and senior fellow in economic education at the Mackinac Center for
Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland,
Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that
the author and the Center are properly cited.