• Abraham Lincoln Meets Sojourner Truth, A Suffragist And Abolitionist

    February 12, 2024

    Adapted from Resilience on Parade: Short Stories of Suffragists and Women's Battle for the Vote

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    Today, February 12, 2024, is Abraham Lincoln’s 215th birthday. Although I’ve not written a book featuring Lincoln in the leading role, I have touched on his story through the stories of others, including the excerpt below.

    In 2020 I released a book on women’s right to vote for the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment. In Resilience on Parade, I shared the stories of several suffragists, such as Abigail Adams in 1776 and Susan B. Anthony in the 1800s. Below is a portion of the chapter on Sojourner Truth. Although the book covers her emancipation from slavery, this excerpt starts with her famous suffrage speech and ends with her meeting with Abraham Lincoln. Enjoy!

    The fifty-four-year-old black woman, who often wore a turban woven with brightly colored threads, entered the convention in Akron, Ohio, that spring day in May 1851. Isabella Van Wagener no longer existed.

    When she left her former master’s house of bondage, she left everything behind. Years later, she went to the Lord and asked Him to give her a new name after her conversion to Christianity in 1848. The Lord gave her Sojourner, because she was to travel up and down the land to show the people the sin of slavery and to be a sign unto them. Later, she wanted a last name, because everyone had two names, and God gave her Truth because she was to proclaim truth to the people.

    As the attendees of the women’s rights conference in Akron on May 29, 1851, would soon discover, Sojourner Truth may have entered that conference known as an abolitionist, but she left it known by another name, too—suffragist.

    “May I say a few words? I want to say a few words about this matter,” she began, saying that she was an example of women’s rights.

    “I have as much muscle as any man, and can do as much work as any man. I have plowed and reaped and husked and chopped and mowed, and can any man do more than that?” Indeed, as her autobiography declared, she’d endured the toil of slavery and had the lashes to prove it.

    “I have heard much about the sexes being equal; I can carry as much as any man, and can eat as much too, if I can get it. I am as strong as any man that is now.

    “As for intellect, all I can say is, if women have a pint and man a quart - why can’t she have her little pint full?” Her pint had recently been full. This woman who could not read had become a published author the previous year. How was that possible?

    She’d shared with abolitionist Oliver Gilbert her story of perseverance and how she’d transformed from a slave into a free person, and he had written it down and published it. Called Narrative of Sojourner Truth by Sojourner Truth, her story shed light on the cruelties of slavery and launched her into the role of an activist. It was time to stand up for African women.

    “You need not be afraid to give us our rights for fear we will take too much, for we can’t take more than our pint’ll hold. The poor men seem to be all in confusion, and don’t know what to do,” she continued.

    “Why children, if you have woman’s rights, give it to her and you will feel better. You will have your own rights, and they won’t be so much trouble,” she said in her own version of remember the ladies.

    “I can’t read, but I can hear. I have heard the Bible and have learned that Eve caused man to sin. Well if woman upset the world, do give her a chance to set it right side up again,” Sojourner proclaimed, turning her talk into a mini sermon of sorts.

    “The lady has spoken about Jesus, how he never spurned woman from him, and she was right. When Lazarus died, Mary and Martha came to him with faith and love and besought him to raise their brother. And Jesus wept—and Lazarus came forth. And how came Jesus into the world? Through God who created him and woman who bore him.”

    Then she ended with a zinger, recognizing the dual reform movements facing the nation: abolition and women’s rights. She represented both.

    “Man, where is your part? But the women are coming up blessed be God and a few of the men are coming up with them. But man is in a tight place, the poor slave is on him, woman is coming on him, and he is surely between-a hawk and a buzzard.”

    Sojourner Truth

    The most memorable speech of that convention, her remarks as presented here were published a few weeks after her speech by Marius Robinson in the Anti‐Slavery Bugle of New Lisbon, Ohio, on June 21, 1851. The event’s organizer, Frances Dana Gage, published another version in 1863 in the New York Independent. Hailed by suffragists, it was branded as Ar’n’t I a Woman? The accuracy of Gage’s version is doubtful because it was published twelve years after she first delivered it. Regardless, the speech brought Sojourner notoriety.

    Around this time, Sojourner traveled to Massachusetts, where she met Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose book Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the Common Sense of the Civil War. Harriet wrote about their meeting in the Atlanta Monthly.

    Sojourner believed that if God could help her do such big things as speaking at the women’s conference or meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe, then he would help her meet the man she most wanted to meet in the world. Heaven’s Great Emancipator would help her meet the emancipator of her people.

    In October 1864, Truth’s ultimate sojourn led her to the great white house where he lived. As she stared at the pillars flanking the president’s house, her mind may have flashed back to the island of the willow trees, her kneeling pillars of prayer under the stars above. She had never seen such a grand house before, whose columns reached to the sky as if to proclaim something special, such as justice or freedom. Then she walked into the house as freely as anyone else.

    President Abraham Lincoln and Sojourner Truth

    A dozen or so guests waited in the president’s reception area. Sojourner noticed that two of the women were also black. A gentleman escorted the guests one by one to the president, who was seated in an adjacent room. One observation made her smile.

    He showed as much kindness and consideration to the colored persons as to the whites, in her opinion. It was hard to hold back a tear or two. If there was any difference, he showed more pleasantries to the emancipated. Then her moment came. The gentlemen escorted her to the president’s desk.

    “This is Sojourner Truth, who has come all the way from Michigan to see you,” the host said, introducing her to the president.

    Abraham Lincoln stood, extending his hand to her. She responded by taking his hand and shaking it. Then he bowed.

    “I am pleased to see you,” he said.

    As many people did before meeting a president, she had rehearsed a thousand times what she planned to say.

    “Mr. President, when you first took your seat I feared you would be torn to pieces, for I likened you unto Daniel, who was thrown into the lions’ den. And if the lions did not tear you into pieces, I knew that it would be God that had saved you; and I said if He spared me I would see you before the four years expired, and He has done so, and now I am here to see you for myself.”

    Tapping his wit, Lincoln congratulated her on being spared.

    “I appreciate you, for you are the best president who has ever taken the seat.”

    Lincoln paused, perhaps crossing his long arms as if thinking.

    “I expect you have reference to my having emancipated the slaves in my proclamation,” he said, naming many of his predecessors, especially Washington. “They were all just as good, and would have done just as I have done if the time had come,” he said, pausing again.

    “If the people over the river,” he said, pointing across the Potomac, “had behaved themselves, I could not have done which gave me the opportunity to do these things.”

    “I thank God that you were the instrument selected by Him and the people to do it,” Sojourner replied, acknowledging that she hadn’t heard of him before he became president. He upped the compliment, noting that he’d heard of her many times before.

    Lincoln then turned toward his desk, sat down, and picked up a large elegant book. He told her it had been given to him by the colored people of Baltimore.

    Sojourner was speechless as she stared at the Bible. She glanced at the president. He nodded, as if giving her permission to open it and look through it.

    “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.”

    Then Sojourner pulled a small book from her skirt pocket and handed it to the president.

    He picked up a pen from his desk and wrote, “For Aunty Sojourner Truth, Oct. 29, 1864. A. Lincoln.”

    Lincoln stood and took her hand with his large bony hand, the same one that had signed the Emancipation Proclamation. He told her he would be pleased to have her call upon him again.

    Sojourner smiled. As she exited through the door and passed through the pillars of the president’s house, she wanted to shout to God and thank him for Abraham Lincoln, but she didn’t have to shout to be heard by the Almighty anymore. God knew her heart.

    “I felt that I was in the presence of a friend, and I now thank God from the bottom of my heart that I always have advocated his cause, and have done it openly and boldly. I shall feel still more in duty bound to do so in time to come. May God assist me.”

    Now more than ever, she would advocate for her people, her now free people. She longed to return home, to make Michigan a place where the emancipated could come and pursue life, liberty, and happiness. Perhaps one day she could vote. As she began her journey home, she believed that the Greatest Emancipator would help her.

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    Jane Hampton Cook

    Jane Hampton Cook is a presidential historian, former White House staffer and author of 10 books, including Stories of Faith and Courage from the Revolutionary War. Janecook.com.

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