On June 22, 1881, Eliza Seaman Leggett, a New York City native, sat down to pen a letter to her dear, lifelong correspondent, Walt Whitman. She wrote from her home at 169 East Elizabeth Street in Detroit, about 40 miles from her Waterford Township house that had served as a stop on the Underground Railroad. A devout Quaker, a dedicated suffragist, and a tireless abolitionist, Leggett often hosted prominent figures in the civil rights movements she supported, people like Julia Ward Howe, Wendell Phillips, and on this particular occasion, Sojourner Truth.
“I wonder if you know anything about Sojourner Truth, an old col’d woman, known to be 100 years of age,” Leggett wrote in a neat but sprawling hand. In this eight-page missive, she told the story of Sojourner Truth, an account popularly mired in myth, even during Truth’s lifetime. Here, Leggett asserted how her visitor remembered seeing soldiers wounded during the American Revolution, even though Truth was not born until about 14 years after the war’s end.
In reality, her life needed no embellishment. Born as Isabella Baumfree, a slave of several families in Ulster County, New York, she was the youngest child of perhaps a dozen. Of her brothers and sisters she knew little, having been separated from them all when they were sold to other slave-owners. So too was she separated from her parents when they were granted their freedom at an old age, too infirm to work. By the time New York State abolished slavery in 1827, Truth had a family of her own, including her five-year-old son, Peter. She waged a long battle after her emancipation to free him when he was sold illegally out-of-state by a wealthy slave-owner. So unbending was her determination, she convinced skeptical lawyers to represent her and won her son back.
Leggett described Sojourner Truth as a “majestic, tall, thin person, with an eye fevery at time, at others, tender and pitiful.” More than that, she was a strong-willed, cunning woman who captured many with the influence of her voice and the cut of her wit. Frederick Douglass, whose opinion of Sojourner Truth was of an “uncultured negro” who endeavored to trip him up in his speeches, also acknowledged her “strange compound of wit and wisdom, of wild enthusiasm and flint-like common sense.” (Douglass wrote this in “What I Found at the Northampton Association,” published in Charles Arthur Sheffeld’s 1895 History of Florence, Massachusetts, Including a Complete Account of the Northampton Association of Education and Industry.)
A deeply spiritual woman, Sojourner Truth joined religious movements in the Manhattan and Northampton area before striking out on her own to spread faith in her God and in support of women’s rights and abolition. In her letter to Whitman, Leggett explains that Truth will only let children read her the Bible, insisting, “If it was the Word of God he will make it plain to her.” Sojourner Truth saw God everywhere, and believed there should be “scriptures telling of railroads, and telephones and the Atlantic cable. She sees God in a steam engine and electricity.”
She also saw God in Walt Whitman’s writing; Leggett wrote to Whitman in order to tell him an anecdote about his Leaves of Grass. Overhearing Leggett read Whitman’s poetry to her children, Truth interjected to ask, “‘Who wrote that?’ I turned, and there in the doorway she stood, her tall figure, with a white turban on her head, her figure and every feature full of expression. Immediately, she added: ‘Never mind the man’s name. It was God who wrote it. He chose the man to give his message.’”
These words and the words of others who encountered her are the only accounts of Sojourner Truth’s life and voice that we have. Despite dictating her biography (Narrative of Sojourner Truth, a Northern Slave) to Olive Gilbert, a fellow abolitionist, the woman herself never learned to read or write. At the close of her letter, Leggett wrote, “Her voice is still powerful.” Centuries later, it still is.
This post is by Crystal Toscano, Reference Librarian for Printed Collections