Today, a slave teaches us about our own capacities.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
A slave named Isabelle was
born in 1797 in upstate New York. It was a bad
time. Eli Whitney (or his slave -- we don't know)
had just invented the cotton gin. Slavery had been
on its last legs in America. Now, Southern cotton
became profitable. Slavery was on the rise again.
There was no cotton in New York, but Belle was no
less a slave. She grew to six feet. She was strong.
She was smart. She was a valuable property. She
grew up on a Dutch speaking farm. They sold her to
an English speaking farm. There she was whipped,
married off, and separated from husband and
New York slaves weren't freed until 1827. Soon
after that, some inner voice spoke to Belle. She
packed her bags and set out to be free -- a 32 year
old field hand with no means -- only a driving and
inexplicable inner fire.
She went to New York City. She was a religious
seeker for the next 16 years. She went from one
church to another, process ing all she saw -- love
and hypocrisy, generosity and greed. She also honed
her peculiar talent for poetry, song, and oratory.
Then, in 1843, she took up her bindlestick and
walked away from New York. She didn't know where
she was headed -- only that she had a mission.
Clear of the city, she stopped at a well. A woman
asked her name. "It is Sojourner," she answered,
hardly knowing why. But Sojourner had no surname.
She prayed for a name with -- in her words -- a
handle on it. And the name came to her. It was
That settled, Sojourner Truth continued
across the land. She stopped at camp meetings. She
began preaching. She shaped a theology of social
activism. She became an integral part of the
abolition movement. As Sojourner Truth, she
appeared on the dais with Frederick Douglas and
William Lloyd Garrison. Harriet Beecher Stowe took
up her cause and wrote about her.
Sojourner Truth was in her sixties when the Civil
War began. By then her powerful lean figure had
touched America. She'd sung and spoken the evils of
slavery with first-hand eloquence. Like Martin
Luther King's message, hers was also bedded in
inescapable Biblical imperatives.
She met Lincoln during the Civil War. He was
honored, he told her. He'd known her work for
years. After the war, she continued fighting for
the rights and well-being of freed slaves. She went
to Kansas to work for the resettlement of slaves
Sojourner Truth was 83 when she died. She'd never
learned to read and write. But she had a mind and
she'd learned to trust that mind. She'd used it to
change herself and to change America.
I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Bernard, J., Journey Toward Freedom: The Story
of Sojourner Truth. New York: W.W. Norton
& Company, Inc., 1967.
I've given Sojourner Truth's birthdate as 1797.
That date is approximate. The exact date isn't
known. A lot of mythology surrounded her toward the
end. Some claimed that she was 105 when she died.
More likely, she was only 83. Two important sources
of information on Sojourner Truth are:
Truth, S., Narrative of Sojourner
Truth. (as taken down by Olive Gilbert.)
Boston: 1850 (final ed. Battle Creek: 1884.)
Stowe, H.B., The Libyan Sibyl. The Atlantic
Monthly, ca. 1853-1856.
I am grateful to Pat Bozeman, Head of Special
Collections, UH Library, for drawing my attention
to the story of Sojourner Truth.
Image courtesy of Special
Collections, UH Library
From The Narrative of Sojourner Truth, 1850
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
Episode | Search Episodes |