April 1863 The Civil War

Sojourner Truth, The Libyan Sibyl

Harriet Beecher Stowe describes her encounter with the legendary African American activist.
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Born into a Dutch-speaking enslaved family in New York, Isabella Baumfree escaped in 1826, the year before the state emancipated adult slaves. When her former master illegally sold one of her children, she sued in court and in 1828 won her son’s return, a first for an African American woman. In 1843 she changed her name to Sojourner Truth and dedicated her life to traveling and lecturing on abolition and women’s rights.

Truth visited Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Andover, Massachusetts, home in 1853, the year after Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published. A decade later, Stowe’s hyperbolic portrait of Truth in The Atlantic romanticized her in contemporary racial tropes and popularized an enduring nickname, the “Libyan Sibyl,” after a famous sculpture that Stowe claimed was inspired by her earlier account of Truth’s life to the artist. (The sculpture is now in the Smithsonian American Art Museum.) While the article brought Truth’s stories to a national audience and made her a celebrity, it also propagated numerous misconceptions (among others, that Truth was born in Africa and spoke in a Southern dialect).

Truth collected contributions to support black regiments and met with President Lincoln during the war; until her death in 1883 she worked as a tireless advocate for African Americans and women. To support her efforts, she sold her photographic calling cards, captioned “I sell the Shadow to support the Substance,” and copies of her dictated autobiography, Narrative of Sojourner Truth. (This article was reprinted in the Narrative’s 1875 edition.)

—Jennifer Farmer Adams
Photo cards like this one and copies of her autobiography served as Sojourner Truth’s main source of income.

Many years ago, the few readers of radical Abolitionist papers must often have seen the singular name of Sojourner Truth, announced as a frequent speaker at Anti-Slavery meetings, and as travelling on a sort of self-appointed agency through the country. I had myself often remarked the name, but never met the individual. On one occasion, when our house was filled with company, several eminent clergymen being our guests, notice was brought up to me that Sojourner Truth was below, and requested an interview. Knowing nothing of her but her singular name, I went down, prepared to make the interview short, as the pressure of many other engagements demanded ...

I do not recollect ever to have been conversant with any one who had more of that silent and subtle power which we call personal presence than this woman ... Her tall form, as she rose up before me, is still vivid to my mind. She was dressed in some stout, grayish stuff, neat and clean, though dusty from travel. On her head, she wore a bright Madras handkerchief, arranged as a turban, after the manner of her race. She seemed perfectly self-possessed and at her ease, -- in fact, there was almost an unconscious superiority, not unmixed with a solemn twinkle of humor, in the odd, composed manner in which she looked down on me. Her whole air had at times a gloomy sort of drollery which impressed one strangely.

"So this is you," she said.

"Yes," I answered.

"Well, honey, de Lord bless ye! I jes' thought I'd like to come an' have a look at ye. You's heerd o' me, I reckon?" she added.

"Yes, I think I have. You go about lecturing, do you not?"

"Yes, honey, that's what I do. The Lord has made me a sign unto this nation, an' I go round a'testifyin', an' showin' on 'em their sins agin my people."

So saying, she took a seat, and, stooping over and crossing her arms on her knees, she looked down on the floor, and appeared to fall into a sort of reverie.

Her great gloomy eyes and her dark face seemed to work with some undercurrent of feeling; she sighed deeply, and occasionally broke out, --

"O Lord! O Lord! Oh, the tears, an' the groans, an' the moans! O Lord!"

I should have said that she was accompanied by a little grandson of ten years ... She looked at him with an indulgent sadness, and then at me ...

An audience was what she wanted, -- it mattered not whether high or low, learned or ignorant. She had things to say, and was ready to say them at all times, and to any one.

I called down Dr. Beecher, Professor Allen, and two or three other clergymen, who, together with my husband and family, made a roomful. No princess could have received a drawing-room with more composed dignity than Sojourner her audience. She stood among them, calm and erect, as one of her own native palm-trees waving alone in the desert. I presented one after another to her, and at last said, --

"Sojourner, this is Dr. Beecher. He is a very celebrated preacher."

"Is he?" she said, offering her hand in a condescending manner, and looking down on his white head. "Ye dear lamb, I'm glad to see ye! De Lord bless ye! I loves preachers. I'm a kind o' preacher myself."

"You are?" said Dr. Beecher. "Do you preach from the Bible?"

"No, honey, can't preach from de Bible, -- can't read a letter."

"Why, Sojourner, what do you preach from, then?"

Her answer was given with a solemn power of voice, peculiar to herself, that hushed every one in the room.

"When I preaches, I has jest one text to preach from, an' I always preaches from this one. My text is, 'WHEN I FOUND JESUS.'"

"Well, you couldn't have a better one," said one of the ministers.

She paid no attention to him, but stood and seemed swelling with her own thoughts, and then began this narration: --

"Well, now, I'll jest have to go back, an' tell ye all about it. Ye see, we was all brought over from Africa, father an' mother an' I, an' a lot more of us; an' we was sold up an' down, an' hither an' yon; an' I can 'member, when I was a little thing, not bigger than this 'ere," pointing to her grandson, "how my ole mammy would sit out o' doors in the evenin', an' look up at the stars an' groan. She'd groan an' groan, an' says I to her, --

"'Mammy, what makes you groan so?'

"an' she'd say, --

"'Matter enough, chile! I'm groanin' to think o' my poor children: they don't know where I be, an' I don't know where they be; they looks up at the stars, an' I looks up at the stars, but I can't tell where they be.

"'Now,' she said, 'chile, when you're grown up, you may be sold away from your mother an' all your ole friends, an' have great troubles come on ye; an' when you has these troubles come on ye, ye jes' go to God, an' He'll help ye.'

"An' says I to her, --

"'Who is God, anyhow, mammy?'

"An' says she, --

"'Why, chile, you jes' look up dar! It's Him that made all dem!"

"Well, I didn't mind much 'bout God in them days. I grew up pretty lively an' strong, an' could row a boat, or ride a horse, or work round, an' do 'most anything.

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