Sojourner Truth, Part 2 of 3
By Dianne D. McDonnell
Isabella, later known as Sojourner Truth, had a heart-rending problem. While she was still a slave in rural New York, her five year old son Peter was sold and then relocated several times until he was taken to a plantation in Alabama. By New York law it was illegal to sell a slave to any southern state. Now she was free, but her son was a plantation slave far away.
Isabella was six feet tall, lean, fit, very intelligent, and a woman of great faith. At this time she had neither shoes nor money, yet she knew God could help her. Hadn’t He helped her that day at sunrise when she escaped on foot from her master’s farm? So she prayed about it and tried to figure out how to go about getting her son back. Years later she is quoted as saying, ”Does God not love colored children as well as white children? And did not the same Savior die to save the one as well as the other?” (Sabbath School Convention, Battle Creek, June 1863.)
She walked to the home of the family that first owned her son, but they laughed at her. Next she went to the home that sold the boy and demanded her child. The matriarch of the family ridiculed Isabella and said the boy “has gone to live like a gentleman”. Returning desolate, she met a man who listened to her and directed her to the homes of two Quaker families. Although she was a stranger to them, they listened attentively and amazed her by offering a “nice, high, clean, white, beautiful bed” for her to sleep in that night. (Page 23, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth, by Olive Gilbert, first published in 1850.) This was an incredible luxury for Isabella as she always slept on the floor and had never slept in a fine bed. In the morning the Quakers sent her to find the Court House and told her to speak to the Grand Jury. Believing she was looking for a man who looked “grand” with a last name of “Jury” she picked out the “grandest” man she saw and explained her problem. He directed her upstairs where she selected another “grand” man. This man led her to the room where the Grand Jurors were meeting, and she again told her story. A lawyer among them wrote down her words and then gave her a book which she later learned was a Bible. He said she must swear by that book that the boy she talked about was really her son. She pressed the book to her lips and said, “I swear it’s my son.”
The clerks burst into laughter, and then explained how to do an oath. Once sworn, the lawyer directed her to take papers to the constable. He was to serve the writ to the man she named who sold her son into Alabama, Solomon Gedney. Unfortunately the constable served Gedney’s brother instead, and the slave owner was able to escape by boat back to Alabama. His own lawyer warned him that if he didn’t return the boy he faced a thousand dollar fine and fourteen years in prison. He thought it over from fall to spring, but finally returned bringing the boy. Even with the boy finally in New York she could not see him, and legalities were set to drag on months longer before her court date. She prayed, “O Lord, give my son into my hands, and that speedily! Let not the spoilers have him any longer.”
As she was walking along wondering if anyone would help her, a man she didn’t know approached her and asked about her son. Finding out about the long delay, he pointed her towards the home of a certain lawyer saying, “…I think he’ll help you. Stick to him. Don’t give him peace till he does….” The lawyer offered to get her son for her in 24 hours for five dollars. She did not have a single dollar. When she was a slave she had never had any contact with money or managing money. She walked ten miles to where the Quakers lived, and they generously gave her ten dollars, a big sum in those days. She immediately walked ten miles back and handed the lawyer the entire amount. He kept his word.
Finally in court, Peter cried out in fear when he saw her and denied she was his mother. When questioned about a bad scar on his forehead he claimed a horse had kicked him. He explained away each mark of mistreatment while looking directly at his master. The judge realized the frightened boy had been told how to act and what to say by Gedney. The judge immediately awarded the boy to Isabella! When she was able to examine Peter, she found long linear scars on his back from beatings. But now, by God’s miracles, he was free!
God answered the prayers of Isabella, who would later take the name of Sojourner Truth. God had plans for her. Part 3 will tell some of the ways God used this tall, brave woman who could neither read nor write yet she became a well know evangelist who helped ignite the American consciousness against slavery. God accomplished even more amazing things in the life of Sojourner Truth, but that’s for Part 3.
Dianne McDonnell is the founder of Freedom Ministry.