Visitors to the cavernous Emancipation Hall in the United States Capitol Visitor Center, a vast underground complex beneath the East Front plaza, encounter a large plaster cast of the Statue of Freedom, the bronze version of which has stood atop the Capitol dome since 1863. The classical female figure—sword in hand—represents the eternal fight for freedom. But another powerful symbol of liberty rests nearby: a small bronze bust of Sojourner Truth–the first statue honoring a black woman in the Capitol–which was unveiled in 2009. A slave at birth, Sojourner Truth escaped bondage as a young woman and championed the emancipation of others. Her lifelong campaigns against slavery and for civil rights made her one of the most famous abolitionists in the world.
Nearly half a century before she adopted a more resonant name, Isabella Baumfree was born in New York during the administration of President John Adams (1797-1801) but was never certain of the date. The “peculiar institution” of slavery was then widespread in the north and south. She was sold repeatedly and subjected to brutal treatment, including sexual assault. Eventually she married a fellow slave and had several children, but she was determined to be free. A year before New York abolished slavery in 1827, she fled with only one of her children in tow. Once her liberty was assured, she went to court to free her son who had been sold to an Alabama planter, and won the case.
Her antislavery convictions were further strengthened when she became a Christian in 1827; in 1843 she changed her name to Sojourner Truth, declaring “The Spirit calls me, and I must go.” And go she did, on a decades-long journey around the United States, preaching and speaking about the evils of slavery and the rights of women. Along the way, she faced down angry mobs that were outraged by her radical views and the forcefulness with which she expressed them. But Truth’s zeal was undimmed.
In the wake of the abolition of slavery in most northern states, sectional tension increased and eventually the country split asunder in 1861. Truth settled in Michigan, where she would live for the rest of her life. By 1863 the fight against slavery had the power and might of the United States army behind it, and Sojourner Truth encouraged free blacks and former slaves to join the cause. Her grandson fought in the famous 54th Massachusetts Regiment.
Her fame and influence led to a White House meeting with President Abraham Lincoln in 1864. She remembered the visit fondly, but unable to read or write, she dictated her recollection to a colleague:
Upon entering his reception room we found about a dozen persons in waiting, among them two colored women. I had quite a pleasant time waiting until he was disengaged, and enjoyed his conversation with others; he showed as much kindness and consideration to the colored persons as to the white. One case was that of a colored woman who was sick and likely to be turned out of her house on account of her inability to pay her rent. The president listened to her with much attention, and spoke to her with kindness and tenderness…
He then showed me the Bible presented to him by the colored people of Baltimore, of which you have no doubt seen a description. I have seen it for myself, and it is beautiful beyond description. After I had looked it over, I said to him, “This is beautiful indeed; the colored people have given this to the head of the government, and that government once sanctioned laws that would not permit its people to learn enough to enable them to read this book. And for what? Let them answer who can.”
The encounter was brought to life decades later in a painting by Franklin C. Courter, “Lincoln Showing Sojourner Truth the Bible Presented Him by the Colored People of Baltimore”. This would not be her last visit to the White House; later, she would later be welcomed back by Ulysses Grant.
The ratification of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery in 1865 was a great triumph, but Truth’s battle for justice continued. She continued to travel the war-scarred nation making speeches in support of black voting rights, land grants for former slaves, and other causes.
Sojourner Truth’s long and remarkable life came to an end at home in Battle Creek, Michigan, in 1883. After her death, Frederick Douglass said of her, “Venerable for age, distinguished for insight into human nature, remarkable for independence and courageous self-assertion, devoted to the welfare of her race, she has been for the last forty years an object of respect and admiration to social reformers everywhere.”
Michael F. Bishop, a writer and historian, is the former executive director of the International Churchill Society and the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission. He is the author of “We Shall Fight: Churchill’s Greatest Speech,” to be published by HarperCollins.