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Celebrating Everyday Spirituality

Sunflower Seeds

Celebrating Everyday Spirituality

The Truth about Sojourner Truth

(I’m writing this reflection to commemorate June 19th [sometimes called Juneteenth, Jubilee Day, or Emancipation Day], the federal holiday that commemorates the ending of slavery in the United States)

Recently I read an article in the Smithsonian magazine (March 2024) by Cynthia Greenlee entitled “The Gospel of Truth.” It attempts to tell the true story of Sojourner Truth based on the latest historical research. First, a few facts. Isabella Bauntree was born into slavery not on a southern plantation, but in the Hudson Valley of New York–which was called New Amsterdam back then. She was born in the late 1700’s to Elizabeth and James Bauntree. Her first language was not English, but Dutch. She never learned to read and write, yet she possessed an amazing gift for public speaking.

Truth wrote, “I sell the Shadow to support the Substance.”

In her dictated autobiography, she tells of how she gained her freedom: one day she just walked away carrying her infant daughter, Sophia, and a few worldly goods. Befriended by Quaker abolitionists, she filed a lawsuit to reclaim her son Peter who had been illegally sold into slavery in Alabama. Amazingly, she won the lawsuit and was reunited with her boy. She describes his shocking condition: “From the crown of his head to the sole of his foot, the callosities and indurations of his entire body were frightful to behold.” A religious woman, Isabella frequently talked to God while walking in the woods. One day in 1843 while praying, she felt God calling her to travel (sojourn) around the country to preach the truth of God’s word. Thus, she took the name Sojourner Truth.

Contemporary accounts describe Truth as a “tall (6 ft.) masculine-looking figure” with “a deep gutteral, powerful voice.” An avid abolitionist, she proposed land grants for recently freed southern slaves and was a “foremother” of the movement for slavery reparations. But she was also a prominent leader in the civil rights and women’s suffrage movements. In addition, she met President Abraham Lincoln and “hobnobbed” with Harriet Beecher Stowe.

The statue of Sojourner Truth by Woodrow Nash at the new Sojourner Truth Memorial in Akron, Ohio

A century before Rosa Parks sat down on an Alabama bus, Truth was “chasing streetcars in Washington, D.C. where Blacks were denied the right to ride.” One day when a streetcar passed her by, Truth gave three tremendous yelps: “I want to ride! I want to ride! I want to ride!” She jumped onto the streetcar, much to the shock of the conductor. When he went to eject her, she told him she was “from the Empire State and knew the laws as well as he.” She was also keenly interested in “old age justice,” and fought for the rights of the elderly, including her own parents.

Truth displayed considerable media savvy. She sold photographs of herself at talks and conventions to help support herself and her children. On the pictures she wrote: “I sell the Shadow to support the Substance.” She controlled her own story by publishing her autobiography, Narrative of Sojourner Truth, a Northern Slave. On May 29, 1851, Truth addressed the attendees of the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio. This past May, a beautiful new memorial was dedicated in her honor in Akron on the site where she gave her mememorable speech. Visit it on line or (better yet) in person!

Cory McLiechey of Grand Rapids, MI, is the fifth generation grandson of Sojourner Truth, a direct discendant through Truth’s daughter, Sophia. He is “now fundraising for a hologram version of his ancestor.” One day he hopes to interview this hologram of Truth in front of elementary school students. It seems “a fitting way” to honor Truth, “a mover and shaker who understood the power of images, and the importance of telling her own story.”

Artist’s rendering of the entrance to the Sojourner Truth Memorial Plaza in Akron, OH.

For reflection:

Is there anything that stands out for you in Sojourner Truth’s story?

If you could summarize her in just a few words, what words would you choose?

What progress have we made in the justice issues Truth fought for? What justice issues are we still struggling with?

Our video is “We Shall Overcome,” one of the anthems for the Civil Rights Movement around the world. Here it is sung by a group called “SOS from the Kids.”

I invite you to add your thoughts to this reflection below. Thank you!

16 Responses

  1. Good morning, Sr. Melannie…
    Good morning, all…

    “I sell the shadow to support the substance.” She was brilliant, she was a mystic, and she is still a role model for all of us! She overcame and we must continue to do so.

  2. What stands out is her fearlessness and her insight into the soul of people, black and white. My three words are persistent, courageous and loving. A person does nor take on the “system” without a well of loving kindness.

  3. Good Morning
    Thanks for sharing and opening our eyes to
    An Amazing Lady! Blessings to All.

  4. Beautiful article and fitting tribute to a woman who is still an inspiration to us today! Thank you for sharing this educational blog post to commemorate Juneteenth.
    Rhonda Abrams

  5. History books never taught us about individuals like Truth, Frederick Douglas, & Harriet Tubman when I was in Catholic schools in 46’ to 60’.
    In. 2006 we visited the Penn Center on St. Helena Island SC.
    Then it was a slave museum but originally a Quaker school to educate blacks
    Even before Emancipation.
    We learned so much and especially that MLK visited it often and wrote his speech
    Of 63’ there.
    We purchased a framed rendition from of DaVinci’s last supper there which substituted apostles with Frederick Douglas, Harriet Tubman , Truth, MLK, etc.
    We hung it beside our DaVinci copy in our dining room and had many interesting discussions with guests thereafter!

  6. A beautiful story of her insight for wisdom and courage…..inspired by faith and the one person we can all trust completely, Jesus Christ.

  7. Insightful story and memorable song! Years ago, my husband and I, along with our oldest daughter who was just a toddler then, attended an ecumenical service at an inner city church in Milwaukee. I have wonderful memories of people of various ages, religious faiths and racial groups joining together and singing “ We Shall Overcome.”

  8. Great and inspiring woman and story! Knew nothing about Sojourner Truth but I’m glad to have met her through you Sister

  9. All students everywhere need to read about Truth. Such an inspiration to all of us. Thank you.

  10. Very Enlightening, Sr.Melannie. Thank you for bringing these facts about her brave witness
    to us.

  11. Hi Melanie,
    Thank you so much for writing to commemorate Juneteenth! There are still so many people who don’t have a clue about what we are celebrating on this national holiday!
    Sr Karen Somerville

  12. My American Lit students were always engaged by her “Ain’t I A Woman” speech, which I always loved to teach. She may have lacked formal education, but what a wise, profound yet common-sense woman. Her strength and commitment to the truth stand as an example to us all.

  13. Injustice, lack of respect for differences, and lying are such stains on us and our Country. We must strive to do much, much better. Show love and compassion and see the face of Christ in everyone. Thank you for this article on Sojourner Truth and her bravery. She was remarkable.

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Meet Sr. Melannie

Hi and welcome to my blog! I’m Sister Melannie, a Sister of Notre Dame residing in Chardon, Ohio, USA. I’ve been very lucky! I was raised in a loving family on a small farm in northeast Ohio. I also entered the SNDs right after high school. Over the years, my ministries have included high school and college teaching, novice director, congregational leadership, spiritual direction, retreat facilitating, and writing. I hope you enjoy “Sunflower Seeds” and will consider subscribing below. I’d love to have you in our “sunflower community.” Thank you!

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