Carrie M. Best/A Digital Archive


By Carrie Best
From That Lonesome Road

While reviewing material for my book I became aware of the tremendous work done over the years by pioneer women. While the works of the majority race have been recognized and often glamourized, little is known of the contribution made by women of the Visible Minority group. So as a tribute to International Women's Year ( 1975) and to them, this column will during the next six issues look at some of these relatively unknown and unsung heroines. Hopefully, this will serve as an inspiration to those who are carrying the torch in this year of International recognition of Women. In any event it won't hurt to compare the obstacles encountered by them as they fought for the liberation of women over the years.

From a preface of the book which was intended as a postscript, the author has written: Soujourner Truth ' once remarked in reply to an allusion to the late Horace Greely, "You call him a self-made man, well I am a self made woman." The world is ever ready to sound the praises of the so-called self-made man, i.e., - those men who in the full possession of freedom, lacking nothing but wealth, achieve distinction and success. It is now asked to accord a modicum of honor to a woman who labored forty long and weary years as a slave; to whom the paths of literature and science were forever closed; one who bore the double burdens of poverty and the ban of caste, yet who, despite all these disabilities has acquired fame and gained hosts of friends among the noblest and best of the dominant race. The reasons for presenting the history of this remarkable woman to the public are two-fold. First, that the world and more especially the young may be benefitted by the wisdom of one who escaped unscathed from the consuming fires of slavery as did Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego from the flames of the fiery furnace.

Why Not!
One hundred and twenty years ago when she was asked "Soujourner what do you think of Women's Rights, she replied "Well, Honey, I've been to the meetings and listened a great deal. They wanted me to speak, so I got up.

Says I "Sisters, I ain't clear about what your after. If women want any more rights - more than they got, why don't they just take them instead of talking about it?"
Why not? Why not indeed!
Who was Soujourner Truth? What was her background and what qualifications that enabled her to travel thousands of miles in a hostile environment fighting, preaching and praying for the emancipation of her enslaved people? Her parents came from the coast of Guinea, her paternal grandmother was a Mohawk Indian woman. She travelled in all twenty one states having lectured in both free and slave states which included New York, Massachusetts, Ohio, Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia. Hers is an incredible, almost unbelievable story of undiluted faith and the courage and heroism that followed.

It was the diabolical scheme of the dealers in human flesh to stultify the brain of the slave that it might become incapable of reason, reflection or memory. The slave child followed the condition of the mother, and seldom had any knowledge of father or date of birth. They had first names only, and having no second name, took the surname of the owner; consequently they received a new cognomen with each new owner.

Soujourner Truth counted her years from the time she was emancipated for it was then she began to live. She once remarked that it is what we accomplish that makes life long or short, adding that some have been on earth scores of years yet die in infancy.

The State of New York emancipated all slaves up to the age of forty in 1817 and in 1825 all who had reached the age of twenty. In 1827 all slaves became free.

Soujourner Truth became free in 1817 and it is assumed she was then forty years old or older.

Completely illiterate but determined to learn and deeply religious, she refused to allow an adult to read the bible or interpret its meaning for her. Only slow-reading children were permitted to read to her.

The interpretation, she maintained came from a direct God to an open mind, unfettered from the confusing and controversial dogma of the different religious bodies of that era, many who owned slaves and remained silent during the anti-slavery conflict. An exception were the Quakers.

Soujourner's slave master refused to release her demanding that she serve another year.

Unlike most slaves who escaped under cover of darkness, this remarkable woman chose to leave at dawn. With her infant on one arm, and all her earthly possessions on the other she walked into the sunrise to begin a new life of freedom and adventure. History records that she sat down, fed her infant, and turning her thoughts to God, her only help, she prayed Him to direct her to some safe asylum. It is written that she claimed that she knew the house where she was to live when she saw it.

The Quakers did not believe in slavery. They neither bought nor sold human flesh. Many of these Christians whom Soujourner called "God's Nobility" sacrificed their lives in the cause of freedom for Black people and their heroism as "conductors" on the Underground Railroad is legendary.

As expected, her former owner followed, and when she steadfastly refused to return, he threatened to take her child as ransom until the years servitude was paid. The Quaker in whose home she was sheltered bought her freedom and that of her child by paying her years "wages" - twenty dollars; and five dollars for the child. The condition of the sale was that she was never to refer to him as Master. "There is but one Master" he said "and He who is your Master is my Master." When she asked what she was to call him, he replied "call me Isaac Van Wagener and my wife Marie Van Wagener. From that day and until she -received the name she claimed was given her by God, she was known as Isabella Van Wagener.

The life of Sojourner Truth is a revelation to all who read it and it is impossible to read and not be deeply moved by it. To those who have for any reason been denied access to Black History it will open an entirely new world of thought. It will, above all other things, reveal the depth of cruelty and degradation to which human beings can descend. It will also prove that human beings may ascend above it, when the mind is allowed to take precedence over the body. That a woman born and raised in slavery, who suffered, untold humiliation and indignities, could travel up and down the land petitioning governments, ministering to the sick, preaching, praying and fighting for her enslaved people is almost unbelievable but it is true. She was, as most slaves and newly freedmen, nameless, homeless and unlearned. So forceful a character was she, that in spite of having mothered thirteen children, it was rumored by her enemies that she was in reality a man, a rumor that caused her to undergo the indignity of having to publicly expose a part of her body to disprove it. Even then she was able to overcome, for having proven her sex, she reminded the large gathering that as a slave woman, she had suckled many white babies who were free, while her own children had been sold into slavery and whose very where abouts were unknown to her.

Wandering Maniac
She was called many names, troublemaker, wandering maniac, and others. But her fame grew, and her wanderings led her from the slave cabin to the halls of Congress and this, by way of some of the largest churches in the land. And she lived to see, as she said "The Stars and Stripes replace the Scars and Stripes - the lash and bruises of her people. She was devoutly patriotic, with an abiding love for her country.

Asked if she always used the unusual name of Sojourner she replied "No, indeed! My name was Isabella, but when I left the house of bondage, I left everything behind. Afterwards, I told the Lord I wanted another name because everybody had two names, and the Lord gave me Truth, because I was to declare truth unto the people."

The journey of Soujourner Truth, Underground Railroad hero Harriett Tubman, Phyllis Wheatly and other visible minority women of History may appear to be unrelated to a history making journey made over three thousand years ago by another visible minority woman - The Queen of Sheba. But because the blood lines are the same it is in reality a continuation of the same journey which ended and (at the same time began) in Jamestown Harbour when a Dutch man-o-war unloaded the first cargo of Black Gold - Spanish speaking slaves to be traded for food to feed her starving crew. It is not similar to the journey of 3000 years ago, but nevertheless, interesting to compare.


The pathetic plea for equality and recognition first sounded by Sojourner Truth during Slavery, has been carried down through the years to International Women's Year 1975. It was during one of her campaigns when she was addressing a group of sympathizers and some who were not so sympathetic, that one man confronted her and said, "Old woman, do you think anyone really cares about you and your speeches against slavery? Why, I don't care any more than I do about the bite of a flea!" "Maybe so, quipped Sojourner, but God willin', I'm going' to keep you scratchin"!

There were other instances when her confrontations were not humorous. It was during one of these when she first uttered her now famous anguished plea for justice and equality: "Aren't I a woman too?" "That man over there said that women needs to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best places everywhere!" she cried. 'Well! nobody ever helped me into carriages, and lifted me over mud puddles, or gave me the best places, (and raising herself to her full height and her voice to a pitch like rolling thunder she asked - "And Aren't I a woman too?" "Look at me! Look at my arm"? (and she bared her right arm to the shoulder showing her tremendous muscular power) I have ploughed and planted and gathered into barns, and no man could head me -And aren't I a woman"?

I have borne thirteen children, and saw most of them sold into slavery; and when I cried out with a mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me -And aren't I a woman".

These now famous words were spoken by Sojourner Truth at a Woman's Rights Convention in Akron Ohio in 1851. Strangely enough the question is being re-echoed by many visible minority women during this International Women's Year 1975.

© 1977 Clarion Publishing