There’s an interesting term that I see on social media called “being slept on.” This term represents someone that is not given credit for their talent or accomplishments, often in sports or entertainment. When I think of leaders that were “slept on” in American history, one that often comes to mind is the remarkable Sojourner Truth. She was at the forefront of not only abolitionist causes in the mid 1800s, but also women’s suffrage movements during the same time.
Truth, born under the actual name of Isabella Baumfree in the late 1700s, was one of a large family of slaves in upstate New York. Truth was actually sold three times by owners before age eleven. Her native language (from her birth family) was Dutch, however she learned English in relatively short order. Sojourner escaped slavery in the 1820s; however, her five-year-old son was not so lucky. He was sold illegally, and Sojourner had to successfully fight the court system to get him returned to New York, which was an unfathomable accomplishment during that era.
Truth was a spiritual woman, who put her faith at the forefront of her march for equality. Truth devoted her life in her mid-forties to supporting abolition and woman’s equality, and was gladly embraced by those movements and their leaders. Truth was often critical of abolition in that it stopped short of representing women’s rights, instead focusing on the men.
She worked alongside well known activists Harriet Tubman and Fredrick Douglas at times during that period. She appealed to the masses and gained a large following from those that watched her speak because of her folksy, common sense approach to equality founded on her powerful divine beliefs. She was the guest of at least three sitting Presidents, including Lincoln, and campaigned vigorously for Ulysses Grant, even though she was not allowed to vote for him. Her speech at the 1851 Women’s Suffrage Convention was one for the ages.
Crowds by and large went crazy listening to her speak. Writers who were fortunate enough to witness her presentations were enamored by her ability to relay her message and to keep abolition and women’s rights separate yet equally important.
Leadership Despite Personal Setbacks
So why don’t we have a national holiday honoring Sojourner Truth? Why is she not on the tip of every American educated being’s tongue when asked about leaders of the 19th century?
The answer above lies in part to the fact Truth could neither read or write. Her own memoirs had to be dictated. Her speeches had to be captured in the moment, and there was no forum for her to go nationwide with editorials and articles. Slaves were not given opportunities for formal education.
The idea that one could, in relatively modern times, be such a powerful leader and communicator without any literate skills, is absolutely stunning and iconic.
The same could be said about Harriet Tubman; however, Tubman was part of a larger movement who had numerous authors and educated participants amongst it. The axioms that leadership is about action and genuine belief in your cause have never rang more true than in this case.
victim of the era
Truth’s leadership recognition was also a victim of the era, when the focus on abolition was primarily the news and those who undertook that cause exclusively were at the forefront of national headlines. Lincoln, Grant, John Brown, and to a lesser extent Fredrick Douglas, were the newsmakers of the time; not the women’s rights movement. Her post abolition stance of colonization-type communities in the West and land ownership for freed slaves seemed to be her last major cause. While Exodusters had a great part in history and generated successful stories, it never caught on as a movement as many of its supporters had hoped.
Maybe because of the aforementioned reasons, even when women’s rights were evolving in the early 20th Century, virtually no formal honorary credit or respect was given to Truth until the 1980s when the state of her residence, Michigan, began to recognize her accomplishments. The movement eventually picked up steam nationally, and in 2014, The Smithsonian Institute named Truth as one of their 100 Most Significant Americans, which is ironic in that her contributions were made in the 1850s-1870s, and no such list had her included up until recently. At least three generations of American education products were shortchanged in understanding the greatness of one of the most fascinating leaders in our history. Here is hope that recent momentum of honoring her continues going forward.
It’s easy to miss the relevance of a leader in the moment, and sometimes, a leader’s impact isn’t truly felt for years to come. Sojourner Truth teaches us to fight for what we believe, whether or not someone gives us a platform. The call to lead sometimes goes to the most unexpected people in life, but their impact can be felt for generations.