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Sojourning with Truth

Published in the issue.

My sojourn with truth began with a jigsaw puzzle.

As our nation embarked upon the centennial anniversary year of the ratification of the 19th Constitutional Amendment, which gave American women the right to vote, I purchased a 500-piece “Votes for Women” jigsaw puzzle about the history of the women’s suffrage movement. Featuring individual portraits of well-known suffragists, the puzzle also came with brief written descriptions of each one’s life and contributions. My purpose was to spend the quiet wintertime prayerfully working on the puzzle, learning more about the suffragists, and celebrating the centennial.

Then, a friend, a priest of our diocese and a woman of color, asked me whether the puzzle included any black suffragists and was honest about the racist opposition of well-known white suffragists, notably Elizabeth Cady Stanton, to giving American blacks, both male and female, the right to vote.

The author’s “Votes for Women” jigsaw puzzle partially completed.

Thankfully, the puzzle did teach about the mighty contributions of several black suffragists, including Mary Church Terrell, Sojourner Truth, and Ida B. Wells (and Frederick Douglass), as well as suffragists from other minority groups, such as Jovita Idár. I was glad to tell this to my friend. Yet, truth be told, I did not also confess that her question surprised and stunned me. For I was embarrassed that, until her question, I had no idea of the ties of the women’s suffrage movement, as I had known it, to white supremacy.

I had no idea, even though I have long advocated for women’s rights in society and church. I had no idea, even though I once had pursued a major graduate research project on Elizabeth Cady Stanton and The Woman’s Bible, and as part of that work, had visited Seneca Falls, the sight in 1848 of the first women’s rights convention, to see Stanton’s home, read some of her personal papers at the Seneca Falls Historical Society, and spend time at the National Women’s Hall of Fame. I had no idea, too, whether my ignorance was due to the lens of my own whiteness or whether the significant contributions of black suffragists had been rendered that invisible by historians.

As I completed the jigsaw puzzle, I privately committed myself to relearning the history of the women’s suffrage movement with a focus on suffragists of color. This coincided well with our diocese’s project, led by the Reparations Committee, to learn, confess, and make amends for our complicity with the historical transatlantic slave trade and institutional racism today. It also made my participation in that work very personal. For Elizabeth Cady Stanton had always been one of my personal heroines, because of her fight for women’s right to vote and her feminist biblical hermeneutic. She had cared about things I care about – civil rights, the Bible – and I had, in some ways, for many years identified with her. To learn that she not only opposed the vote for African Americans, but also used racial stereotypes and slurs in expressing her views, was grievous to me. It cast a stark light on my own racism.

Over the next several months, I did learn more about suffragists of color, including how much more I must continue to learn. Fortunately, in observance of the 19th Amendment centennial, many historians, opinion writers for major American newspapers, and others were raising the question of the invisibility of black suffragists. In New York, too, great attention was being given especially to Sojourner Truth – in response, I imagine, to both the Black Lives Matter movement and the centennial.

So, my sojourn with truth, which began with a jigsaw puzzle, evolved into a spring and summer sojourn with Sojourner Truth. I had, of course, known of her famous “Ain’t I a Woman” speech at the 1851 Women’s Rights Convention held in Akron, Ohio. I had even realized, a few years ago, that she was born into and eventually earned her freedom from slavery in Ulster County, a county of our diocese – only because on the occasions I would drive to Holy Cross Monastery from my home in Ulster County, I would pass by the Sojourner Truth memorial in Esopus, NY, where a bronze statue depicts Truth as a child, and I had been curious about it. Other than this, however, I knew little about her. In these past few weeks, I have learned that Sojourner Truth’s birth name was Isabella Baumfree. She originally spoke Dutch and was first sold as a slave at the tender age of nine years. Beaten by her new owner because she didn’t know English, she learned the language on her own. Sold again, more than once, Truth experienced beatings and rape at the hands of her owners. Truth escaped to freedom late in 1826, with one of her children, and found refuge with a family in New Paltz. Two years later, in the now historic Ulster County Courthouse in Kingston, NY, built just ten years earlier, Truth successfully won a case against a former owner who had illegally sold her son Peter into slavery in Alabama. She became the first black parent to win freedom for a child in such a case and the first black woman in US history to win a case against a white man. She moved to New York City the next year, where in 1843, filled with a fiery religious impulse, she changed her name to Sojourner Truth and began her preaching as an abolitionist and suffragist. She became a popular speaker and eventually purchased property first in Massachusetts, and later Michigan, for a home base as she traveled on lecture tours. During the Civil War, Truth helped to recruit black troops for the Union Army and in 1864 visited President Abraham Lincoln in the White House. She stayed in Washington, DC working to improve conditions for African Americans. One day while there, enraged by the indignities of segregation on public transportation, she brought a local streetcar to a standstill by demanding of a seat – nearly a century before Rosa Parks’ own act of resistance. The incident led to the integration of the capital’s transportation system.  For the remainder of her life, she would continue to live back and forth in Washington, DC and Michigan, and continued on her circuit ride, advocating for the rights of both women and African Americans.

In this centennial year, two new statues of Sojourner Truth have been unveiled within our diocese, one at the Highland, NY entrance to the Walkway over the Hudson, the other in Central Park. Both debuted on August 26, 2020, one hundred years after the certification of the 19th Amendment’s ratification. It was a beautiful summer day, and as part of my sojourn with truth, I went for a 12-mile walking pilgrimage in New York City to see the Central Park bronze. New York City has only six public statues of historical women, and my journey took me to see all of them, in this order: Harriet Tubman at the intersection of St. Nicholas Avenue and Frederick Douglass Boulevard in Harlem; Joan of Arc and Eleanor Roosevelt in Riverside Park; Golda Meir on Broadway at 39th Street, Gertrude Stein in Bryant Park; and finally, Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, portrayed in the new Women’s Rights Pioneers statue in Central Park.

The Women’s Rights Pioneers statue, by Meredith Bergmann, was unveiled in Central Park August 26. It depicts Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

The statue, which depicts Truth and Stanton seated, with Anthony standing between, is magnificent and detailed. Explains sculptor Meredith Bergman, the design represents each women’s gifts as part of the suffrage movement – Truth is speaking, Anthony is organizing, and Stanton is writing. Details tell even more: Truth is holding knitting in her lap, for example, as a symbol of her freedom. Enslaved blacks had not been permitted to learn how to knit.

I had reached the statue in the mid-afternoon, hours after its morning debut, and by then there was only a small crowd gathered. Yet we were all silent in awe. The Women’s Rights Pioneers is the first statue in Central Park to depict an historical woman. Surrounded by the bronzes and stone carvings of men throughout the park, we could sense the importance of what we were beholding.

Being in the statue’s presence filled me with gratitude, but also sadness. The Women’s Rights Pioneers statue is also the first within Central Park, I had read, to depict an African American, male or female. (Statues of Frederick Douglass and Duke Ellington stand in traffic circles on 110th Street in Harlem, bordering the park.) And this almost didn’t happen. Original designs for the statue, which depicted only Anthony and Stanton, had met with intense public criticism for minimizing the contributions of women of color. The racism that had been part of the women’s suffrage movement in the 19th century was about to be set in bronze. In response to the criticism, Bergman offered a redesign and had to work diligently to complete the statue in time for the centennial debut.

As a result of my months of sojourning, culminating in the walking pilgrimage to see the statue, I had come to realize, for the first time not just academically, but on a deeply personal level, that the stories and contributions, the sufferings and triumphs, of women of color remain mostly invisible not just to the larger society, but also to me. The truth is, my friend should not have had to ask her question about the jigsaw puzzle. I should have asked it, and I need to learn to ask questions like these readily myself, in order to be a true ally, advocate, and accomplice in the continuing work for civil rights and justice for African Americans.

I promise to try, with a hope that my explorations into what I do not yet know about African American history will make the landscape more familiar; that I will grow in knowledge and love; and that I will someday no longer be a sojourner, but rather a neighbor and friend.