Truth in Akron:
Ain’t I a woman?
In 1797, near the Hudson River in New York, a slave girl was born. She was named Isabella. Thirty years later, she was free – free to move, free to chose a name of her own. She chose Sojourner Truth.
She could not read or write, but she knew the bible well. She spoke out publicly against slavery and social injustice. Unimaginable for a black woman at the time, she filed two lawsuits. The first suit was to get her son, Peter, back after had had been illegally sold across state lines. She filed a second suit, against a newspaper, for slandering her name. She won both times.
Truth crossed paths several times with anti-slavery spokesman Frederick Douglass. He encouraged her to continue to oppose slavery. I don't think she needed much encouragement. Ever outspoken, Truth challenged Douglass in public speeches. When he proclaimed that only bloodshed would end slavery, Truth yelled out, “Frederick, is God dead?”
Douglass described Truth as a “strange compound of wit and wisdom, of wild enthusiasm, and flint-like common sense.” I’d describe her as smart enough to know when righteous indignation is called for.
In 1864, Truth traveled to Washington DC to meet with Abraham Lincoln, to thank him for his efforts on behalf of blacks. She reportedly said to him, “I heard of you before you ran for President.” Lincoln supposedly replied, “I heard of you long before I thought about running for President.” With such a reputation, it’s not surprising that Truth left a mark on Ohio.
It was in Akron, on May 29, 1851, at the second Ohio Women’s Rights Convention, held at the Old Stone Church on North High Street, where Truth delivered her hallmark “Ain’t I a Woman” speech. She was listening, the story goes, to several male ministers explain why women should not have the right to vote.
One minister suggested that women were weaker, and less intelligent, than men. He said that God had intended for men to have more power than women, offering as evidence the fact that Christ was a man. At that point, Truth stood up. She was six feet tall, and likely made quite an impression on everyone in the room. Texts of the speech vary, but the lines below are included in all of the accounts I’ve read. She reportedly walked to the stage and said:
Ain’t I a woman?
I have ploughed and planted, and worked as hard as any man, and eat as much too. And Ain’t I a woman? My mother bore ten children and saw them sold off to slavery, and when I cried with my mother’s grief, nobody but Jesus heard me.
And Ain’t I a woman?
Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ‘cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from?
Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.
If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.”
The Sojourner Truth Coalition commemorated the 150th anniversary of Truth’s speech at the Trinity Lutheran Church in Akron on May 19, 2001.
This article appeared in the May 2001 issue of Focus magazine, with an announcement regarding the commemoration. A building in Akron is named for Truth, and monuments to the woman can be found in New York, Michigan, and Massachusetts, and other places throughout the US. I think it’s really cool that this speech was heard first in Akron. Although in a quick search, I did not find a current listing for the coalition in Akron, I was happy to see that her message continues to inspire changes in Ohio.