When we first moved to Michigan I was intrigued to find there were many areas in the state where there had been Underground Railroad activity before the Civil War.. Located close to Canada, Battle Creek was one of the main stops for slaves traveling by foot through Indiana, Detroit and then Canada.
One of the most famous former slaves who became a strong abolitionist and champion of human rights was Sojourner Truth. She lived in Battle Creek for the last 26 years of her life. Born in New York State in 1797 and named Isabella, she escaped slavery while in her mid-thirties.
Promised by her owner, Dumont, he would grant her freedom “if she would do well and be faithful,” she worked for him fulfilling the time he had specified. When the date came for her freedom, he refused to let her go. Feeling she had kept her end of the bargain, she took her infant daughter and escaped. Later talking about that decision to leave she said, “I did not run off, for I thought that wicked, but I walked off, believing that to be all right.” It must have been a tough decision because she left her older children behind as they were still legally considered property of Dumont.
The New York Anti-Slavery Law passed in 1799 stipulated that children born to slave mothers were free. They were required to work for the mother’s master as indentured servnts into their late twenties but then be free. Dumont ignored that law and sold Isabella’s five-year-old son. She filed a lawsuit to get him back and was the first black woman to sue a white man in a United States court and win.
After excaping slavery she became a Christian. In 1843 she changed her name to Sojourner Truth. She felt she had an obligation to travel and speak out against slavery and oppression while sharing the news of the Gospel.
Asked to speak at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convetnion in 1851 she spoke out about black women’s rights. Reporters took down her speech and it has been widely publicized as ‘Ain’t I a Woman?”
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
During the Civil War she helped recruit black soldiers. Working for the National Freedman’s Relief in DC she encouraged people to donate food, clothes and other supplies to the black slaves escaping from the South. This bought her to the attention of President Abraham Lincoln who welcomed her to the White House and showed her a Bible he had been given by African Americans in Baltimore. She was bold enough to ride on whites-only streetcars while in DC.
She spoke to fellow Christians when she asked: “Children, who made your skin white? Was it not God? Who made mine black? Was it not the same God? Am I to blame, therefore, because my skin is black? …. Does not God love colored children as well as white children? And did not the same Savior die to save the one as well as the other?”
She visited more than 20 states speaking against the evil of slavery. While speaking to a Quaker group in Battle Creek in 1856, she felt so welcome in this community that she moved here the following year. At first she lived in a small settlement west of town called Harmonia, moving into Battle Creek in 1867 where she lived until her death in 1883.
Today there is a statute celebrating her in downtown Battle Creek.
Because it was illegal to teach slaves, she never learned to read or write. This is the only known example of her signature which she wrote in an autograph book of a high school student in April 28, 1880.
She is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in Battle Creek as well as some of her children.
You can learn more about this courageous woman in “The Narrative of Sojourner Truth which she dictated to Olive Gilbert.