The unknown history of Seneca Falls: Sojourner Truth

a black and white portrait of suffragist Soujourner Truth
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This year marks the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which extended the right of suffrage to women, but practically speaking, millions of women of color were still barred from the polls.

To reflect on this anniversary, we’re exploring stories from the women’s suffrage movement that aren’t widely known, and that can shed light on the continued fight for gender equality today.

I n 1848, Sojourner Truth was living in her recently purchased home in Massachusetts and becoming a leading reformer. She had escaped slavery, sued successfully for her son’s freedom, and spent years in a commune run by religious figure Prophet Matthias. She did not travel to Seneca Falls. We have no records that Black women attended the convention, but historians think that they might have been spectators.

In the late 1790s, Truth was born into slavery with the name Isabella in New York. Because she had Dutch owners, Truth grew up speaking Dutch. New York abolished slavery in 1827, and Truth moved to New York City and became a domestic worker. She also participated in a religious group that believed Christ would return in 1843. When the prophecy failed to come true, she moved to Massachusetts and adopted the name Sojourner Truth.

Truth never learned to read or write in English, so she probably heard about the Seneca Falls Convention from friends who read newspapers. Two years later, another reformer helped her publish her autobiography, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth. Truth had done physical labor all of her life, but she began to support herself by selling books and delivering lectures.

In 1851, Truth delivered her most famous speech to a women’s rights meeting in Akron, Ohio. At the time, an attendee recorded it, but it was rewritten in 1863 by a white reformer to include the famous phrase “Ain’t I a Woman?” The same year, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin Harriet Beecher Stowe called Truth the “Libyan Sibyl.” Both writers mischaracterized her; the Dutch-speaker did not have a Southern drawl, and she had never been to Libya.

Truth wanted to represent herself without the help of a writer, and, then in her late 60s, she looked to the new technology of photography. In Truth’s portraits, she often held knitting needles, wore a white head wrap and plain Quaker clothing. Her photographs portrayed her as a modest and intelligent Black woman.

Her photographs included the quote “I sell the shadow to support the substance.” Truth sold her “shadow”—a 19th-century word for a photograph—to support herself and the substantial reforms that she promoted. Truth had met Frederick Douglass in the late 1840s, and both leaders sold their portraits to emphasize the humanity of Black people.

In 1856, Truth moved to Michigan and lived there the rest of her life. In 1872, she, Susan B. Anthony, and dozens of suffragists attempted to cast a ballot in the presidential election. They argued that voting was a right for all citizens, but the Supreme Court ruled against them in Miner v. Happersett. The decision stands today and allows states to pass laws that restrict voting rights.