Sojourner Truth and Her Love for Her Son
In July of 1826 Sojourner Truth simply walked away from slavery, with her youngest child. She didn't run...she didn't go very far...she simply decided she wasn't going to be a slave anymore.
Some years earlier the New York state legislature passed two laws, gradually emancipating slaves. The laws essentially provided that all adult slaves would be set free on July 4, 1827 and any child, born after a certain date, to an enslaved mother, would have to work for the mother's owner until the age of 21—at which time the child would also be free.
Sojourner's owner had promised her he would set her free one year before the 1827 date. When she approached him about his promise, he changed his mind; saying that she had hurt her hand (some time earlier) and did not give him the proper amount of work. So, Sojourner decided to leave...after she spun about 100 pounds of wool, she got up at dawn and walked away with her youngest child.
She did not go very far and was able to secure her freedom, which allowed her to stay in the area, however, sometime before she left, her owner sold off her youngest son, Peter, to a man named Dr. Gedney.
Gedney took Peter to New York City, with the intention of going to England, but Peter was only five years old and Gedney found him too young too suit his needs. He therefore sold Peter to his brother, Solomon Gedney, who turned around and sold Peter to his brother-in-law, in Alabama.
When Sojourner found out that her son had been sold to Alabama, she knew exactly what that meant! If Peter was not in the state of New York, he would never be emancipated at the age of twenty-one...he would be forever enslaved.
Sojourner set out to get him back, the only way she could, through the law.
Determination and God's Promise
Sojourner initially got help from a group of Quakers who instructed her to go down to the courthouse and to present her case to the grand jury. She prayed to God and asked that God help her. Armed with that faith, she set out for the courthouse.
She had never been inside a courthouse before and did not know what a grand jury really was. Once she found the right room, she presented her case in such a convincing manner that one of the jurors asked her to step into a room. There she was asked to restate her case and to swear that the child was actually hers. She was given a document to take to the local constable, in order to serve Solomon Gedney.
Solomon Gedney then secured legal counsel and was advised to go get Peter or face possible jail time. Gedney left for Alabama and months passed before he returned with Peter.
When he did return, he claimed Peter as his enslaved property and Sojourner was told that she would have to wait another several months before the matter could be addressed in court.
Sojourner did not believe she should have to wait. She believed God would answer her prayers completely and she did not want Peter to be in the custody of Gedney for another several months. Who knows what Gedney might do to him?
Her lawyer told her that she should be thankful for all they had been able to do—it was remarkable that her son was back in New York and that she should wait patiently for the next court session.
Sojourner was not satisfied...she walked around town, wondering what she could do, when a stranger who knew of her case, approached her. He told her to go see a lawyer, named Demain, who would surely help her, if she insisted.
Faith and Effort
She went directly to Demain's house and laid out her situation. He agreed to help her and told her if she would give him five dollars, she would have her son in 24 hours. Demain was going to hire a man who "specialized" in getting things done and he needed the five dollars to pay him.
Sojourner explained that she did not have any money and had never owned a dollar in her life. She decided to ask the Quakers, who originally helped her, for assistance. She immediately left Demain's house, walked ten miles to their location, and was able to collect money from them.
She then walked back to his house and gave him all of the money she collected—a sum greater than five dollars. People wondered why she didn't keep some of the money for herself (because she was poor), but she said she only wanted her son (not the money) and she figured that "If five dollars would get him, more than that would surely get him."
She now had to wait. After a considerable amount of time passed (about 24 hours) Demain came to get Sojourner to tell her that her son had indeed been obtained and was down at the courthouse, but that he was denying that he had any family, or a mother, in this place. She had to go identify him.
She went down to the office, but when she got there, her son screamed and grabbed the leg of Solomon Gedney...claiming that Gedney was his master and that he didn't want them to take him.
Peter had a big scar on his forehead and when he was asked how he got it, he claimed that a horse in Alabama kicked him. He also had a scar on his cheek, which he said he got from running into a carriage.
The judge made Peter talk directly to him and asked him to stop looking at Gedney, when he answered.
Demain, the lawyer, began to argue that the child must be able to be claimed because his sale, out of the state of New York, was illegal under the emancipation laws and that Solomon Gedney should be fined and prosecuted.
Sojourner sat in the corner, while all of this was going on, barely breathing...thinking that if she could only get her son...she didn't care about anything else.
The judge finally declared that her son be given to her "having no other master, no other controller, no other conductor, but his mother."
A Mother's Love
When Sojourner and the other people there were finally able to calm Peter down, she looked at him and from the top of his head to the soles of his feet, he had scars all over his body. His back was whelped and looked "like her fingers, as she laid them side by side."
"How did you bear this?” she exclaimed. Peter said the scars were from the man in Alabama who had kicked, beaten, and whipped him. He said that there was also a woman, named Phillis there, who had a newborn baby. She was beaten to the point where both blood and milk ran down her body. Sojourner was horrified…she couldn’t believe her son was with such an abusive man. She was able to secure her son’s freedom and, in doing so, she was among the first African-American women, in the United States, to win a lawsuit.
Copyright 2017 Danita Smith, Red and Black Ink, LLC.
Gilbert, Olive. Narrative of Sojourner Truth, 1850.
New York State Archives. AN ACT relative to slaves and servants. http://iarchives.nysed.gov/dmsBlue/viewImageData.jsp?id=177899
Photo: Library of Congress, Sojourner Truth, three-quarter length portrait, standing, wearing spectacles, shawl, and peaked cap, right hand resting on cane, Date Created/Published: [Detroit], . Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-119343 (b&w film copy neg.)