Sojourner Truth.

Photo by Randall Studio, National Portrait Gallery collection. Public domain.

Sojourner Truth, a beacon of justice for our times: “The Spirit calls me, and I must go”

February 27, 2024

Sojourner Truth (1797-1883) was a beacon of justice that lights our way to a world in which all God’s children flourish. Her legacy continues to inspire us to move towards a vision of an equitable, just society.

“Sojourner Truth’s story is one of resilience, perseverance and activism, and we were able to use those through lines from the past to connect them to the present for people to take into their lives today,” said Lawana Holland-Moore, historian and director of fellowships and strategies at the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund. The organization spearheaded the initiative to construct the Sojourner Truth Memorial Plaza in Akron, OH, that will open in May 2024. The plaza is located on the site of the church where Sojourner Truth delivered her famous speech, often referred to as the “‘Ain’t I a Woman?’ speech” in 1851. The speech (later found to actually not have contained the phrase at all) captured her frustration at discrimination against women, including by her fellow abolitionists. Using the examples of Mary and Martha, who were important figures in Jesus’s life, she argued that women are equal to men spiritually and politically.

The religious references were not arbitrary; it is clear from Sojourner Truth’s memoir (published in 1850) that her commitment to justice was fueled by her fervent faith. Born Isabella Baumfree in 1797 in New York State to enslaved parents, James and Elizabeth Baumfree, she was sold three times by the age of 13. She was filled with the power of the Holy Spirit in 1827, the year when slavery was abolished in New York State. In the years that followed, she became involved in relentless justice work, while battling her former owner, who illegally sold her young son, Peter, into slavery in Alabama, in court. Famously, she became the first African American woman who prevailed over a white man in a court case.

Sojourner Truth was a beacon of justice that lights our way to a world in which all God’s children flourish. Her legacy continues to inspire us to move towards a vision of an equitable, just society.

In 1843, she commemorated Pentecost, the Christian holiday that marks the day when the Holy Spirit filled the disciples and gave them the power to preach to strangers, by changing her name to Sojourner Truth. This new name, which literally meant “itinerant preacher,” described her calling. It was this imperative that directed her work as an abolitionist, a Black feminist and a woman of profound faith. She was recorded as saying, “The Spirit calls me, and I must go.” She went, and she preached the Gospel and the anti-slavery message. Her preoccupation with truth, as expressed by her new name, was undoubtedly influenced by her traumatic experiences as an enslaved person, abused child, exploited worker, and a mother whose children were stolen away. “Truth is powerful,” she commented another time, “and it prevails.”

Like another prominent African American woman of the time, Harriet Tubman, Truth urged African American soldiers to enlist for the Union cause during the Civil War. She also led the efforts to help African American refugees as part of her work for the National Freedman’s Relief Association. Notably, she was one of Rosa Parks’ precursors in expressing her disdain for racial segregation on public transit. In 1864, during her visit to Washington on the invitation of President Abraham Lincoln, she would board “whites-only” streetcars. Assaulted by a conductor, she successfully sued him in court which led to the introduction of integrated streetcars in the area.

Our choices define us. The values we hold dear are embodied by who we choose to memorialize through naming of public spaces and erecting statues. As Confederate memorials continue to be removed across the country, new possibilities for celebrating legacies of truth-telling emerge. Sojourner Truth, a faithful and relentless advocate for justice, lived and worked in times that must have seemed hopeless for enslaved people. May she be an inspiration to us, especially at a time when it is hard to believe that a world full of systemic violence against African Americans and other minoritized groups can be made whole. As Truth herself told us, the attributes of the Almighty are “on the side of the oppressed.” The joint power of history and faith lies in the fact that they give us signposts. It is up to us to read them and act upon them.

Rev. Dr. Anna Piela is an ordained American Baptist Churches USA minister. She is senior writer, American Baptist Home Mission Societies and co-associate regional minister for White and Multicultural Churches, ABC Metro Chicago. A Polish immigrant and a scholar of religion, she holds a doctorate in Women’s Studies from the University of York, UK. Her second book, Wearing the Niqab: Muslim Women in the UK and the US, was published in 2021.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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