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Sojourner Truth; Abolitionist, Suffragist, Lower East Sider


February is Black History Month! While we’re in favor of broadening our collective understanding of history to incorporate more people of color all year round, we’re also excited to celebrate one amazing African American woman who once made her home on the Lower East Side.

Carte de visite of Sojourner Truth, who once lived at 74 Canal Street. Image courtesy the NYPL.

Using an amazing new interactive tool called MAAP (Mapping the African American Past), we’ve discovered that Sojourner Truth–one of the most influential African American thinkers of the 19th century–lived right in our backyard!

MAAP is a joint venture from Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning (CCNMTL), Creative Curriculum Initiatives (CCI), and Teachers College (TC), overlays historic points with a contemporary map of New York. You can check it out online here.

The MAAP program shows Sojourner Truth's home.

Born into slavery in Ulster County in upstate New York as Isabella Baumfree, Sojourner Truth was sold three times by age 12. She escaped slavery in 1826 with her infant daughter, then took her owner to court in order to claim her son, who had been sold illegally to an owner in Alabama. She won, making her the first African American woman to ever win a court case against a white man. Truth then moved to New York City in 1829, where she lived in a small wooden house at 74 Canal Street (the site is now home to a brick tenement building and a laundromat).

74 Canal Street today. Image from Google Maps.

While in New York City, Truth worked as a housekeeper for Elijah Pierson, a preacher. She soon met Robert Matthews, the leader of a religious group popular in New York in the 1830’s. When Pierson suddenly died, both Matthews and Truth were tried for stealing from and poisoning Pierson, but both were acquitted.

Canal Street near Centre Street, approximately 1863. This is what Canal Street would have looked like when Truth lived there. Image courtesy the NYPL.

Truth became a devout Christian after escaping slavery, and preached at the Mother AME Church on 137th Street for 14 years. In 1843, she had a revelation and began to travel the country spreading her gospel of equality between the races and sexes. She spoke from New England to Kansas, moving audiences with her passionate rhetoric. According to the MAAP site, Truth was an expert at quieting her hecklers:

“As one there remembered it, the hecklers were hissing but, ‘At her first word there was a profound hush.’ When one man called women ‘weak,’ Truth looked him in the eye and in her low voice said, ‘I could work as much and eat as much as a man (when I could get it), and bear the lash as well — and ain’t I a woman?’”

Truth became a celebrity during her lifetime; she was close friends with William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, Lucretia Mott, and Susan B. Anthony and even bent the ears of Presidents Lincoln and Grant.

A drawing of Abraham Lincoln and Sojourner Truth during their 1864 meeting. Lincoln is showing Truth a Bible that was presented to him by the African American citizens of Baltimore. Image courtesy the Library of Congress.

During the Civil War, Truth worked to recruit African Americans for the Union Army, worked to improve living conditions for African Americans across the country, and helped to force the end of segregation on Washington D.C. streetcars.

When Truth died in 1883 in Battle Creek, Michgan, it is reported that 3,000 people came to her funeral; the biggest event Battle Creek had ever seen.

Sojourner Truth's home on the corner of Allen and Canal (then called Walker) Street from an 1831 atlas. Image courtesy the NYPL.

While Truth never lived in New York City again after 1843, she did speak at the Broadway Tabernacle on 93rd Street in September of 1853. Truth’s women’s suffragist speech was constantly interrupted by men who hissed and disrupted her, to which she said, “You may hiss as much as you please, but women will get their rights anyway. You can’t stop us, neither.”

Today we remember Sojouner Truth, a Lower East Sider who fought for justice!

– Posted by Lib Tietjen