By Erin Lounsbury
February 24, 2021
Learning From History
As an avid antique book collector, I especially cherish books that provide a window into our past. Looking at history is not always a pleasant thing. Sometimes we are greeted with a reality that exposes unknown truths that once given the breath of life can be an inspiration to today’s life. Without knowledge of our past and the people who formed that history, we would lack the understanding of all the immense challenges and accomplishments our predecessors have achieved. Unfortunately, these days our society prefers to focus on the worst in people; they want what should have been, and do not know how to appreciate the sacrifices people have made in the past…especially those of color.
Complaining about the hardships that burdened our ancestors, sadly diminishes the many sacrifices made by those who actually lived that history. A case in point is Sojourner Truth. Although she suffered immensely during her lifetime, she is the kind of person who deserves recognition and appreciation for what the human spirit and what each one of us has within and overcome anything.
Born Into Bondage
Born into slavery in 1797 as Isabella in the Dutch-speaking county of Ulster in the state of New York, her life in bondage was terrifying and constant. As most slaves throughout the world’s 5,000+ year history of slavery, she was subjected to the worst humanity had to offer. She had been bought and sold 4 different times taking her from New York to Maine to Kansas and back again. She endured the harshest physical labor and punishments imaginable. Although it is not known exactly the cause of one particular incident, she was beaten so bad it scarred her for life.
When Isabella was 17, she was given the right to marry another slave and they had five children, the first being born in 1815. At 6 feet tall and very strong, Isabella did her best to take care of her family while at the same time obeying John Dumont, her master. In 1826, with a family and the news of New York’s law to release all slaves in the coming year, John Dumont had promised to release her as a free woman. When he went back on that promise, Isabella ran away with her infant daughter and took refuge with a nearby Quaker family.
Human Kindness Intervened
The Van Wagenens were abolitionists and took her in where she worked for her room and board. When John Dumont eventually found out, he demanded the Van Wagenens release her. Instead, the Van Wagenens paid Dumont the regal sum of $20 ensuring her freedom. The Van Wagenens didn’t stop there. They helped bring her family back together.
With New York now enforcing the new anti-slavery law, Dumont had illegally sold Isabella’s 5-year-old son, Peter, to another master in Alabama. The Van Wagenens drew together a group of people, including two New York Attorney’s, who helped bring Isabella and her son back together so they could never be separated again.
Isabella took her family to New York City in 1828. She took a job working for a local minister. In the coming years as she became more and more involved in the popular religious revivals of the times, she became an integral part of many of the speeches. Encouraged by prominent people, both Black and white, like Wm. Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass, an anti-slavery leader, she began preaching the truth.
Isabella was an exceptional speaker and the experiences she shared with the public and the positive responses she received, made a profound impact on her. Isabella began a transformation of the soul and inner spirit, where she no longer was just a freed black woman, she was a hero.
A New Life's Mission
In 1847 Isabella changed her name to fit her calling, Sojourner Truth. Befitting her new name, Sojourner truly believed that what occurs at any given time is only temporary; change is the only constant and when we take hold of the truth, we can continue to change and make a positive difference in the here and now. Sojourner never learned to read or write, but that didn’t stop her from spreading her story to the world.
She knew that society needed people, all people, to work together. She asked Olive Gilbert, a white woman she met during her travels, to help put her story on paper, which became her autobiography. Once published, Sojourner was able to live on the money from the sales of her book, and gained national recognition from the likes of Susan B. Anthony and President Abraham Lincoln.
In the1850s, she moved to Battle Creek, Michigan, to be with her three daughters and where the Republican Party was more prevalent. Republicans were the backbone of the antislavery movement in government and their help brought her closer to State and National Leaders. She now had a bigger platform to tell her story. Michigan Republican Leaders aided her move from Battle Creek to Washington D.C. where she joined the Freedmen’s Bureau helping black Americans learn how to use their new-found freedoms.
To Achieve is to Grow as a Person
During her time helping people to adjust to their new life, Sojourner realized a pattern with her teaching of others and the behavior of those who wouldn’t listen or take her help. She emphasized the need for blacks to be industrious and prove to others, as well as themselves, they have value in society, and at the same time, instilling the importance of family and community. During one speech, she criticized those blacks who lived "off the government."
In order to create their own story, she urged all blacks to get off the government assistance and take care of themselves. She continued to criticize using a specific example where blacks would take charity boxes of clothes given to them by white people in the North, but then turn around to grab even more the following week. She was adamant that this behavior made them worse off than when they were in slavery. When someone is a slave, they have no control, but someone who is free and chooses to be controlled by people they don’t even know, they are "worse off … than in slavery."
If we don’t take pride in the great strides our society has made regarding people of color, we negate the efforts taken by those who paved the way for change. Sojourner did not accomplish all that she did by herself. During her entire adult life, she received help from white people at various stages of her life. Whether they were a rural religious family, an editor and writer, or a national leader, she proved, and emphasized that working together is crucial to not only improve ourselves, but also our communities creating the freedoms that all citizens deserve.
Erin (Sullivan) Lounsbury is a native of Ada/Lowell, Michigan. Erin is a married mother of a Navy Veteran Son and a Daughter who is currently an Officer aboard the USS Essex. Erin has BAS degrees in IT and eCommerce and has both lived and traveled internationally to South Africa, Indonesia, Australia and Malaysia. Working to provide efficient and effective solutions to problems, Erin is now a Muskegon County Precinct Delegate and Writer.