This calendar of saints is drawn from several denominations, sects, and traditions. Although it will no longer be updated daily, the index on the right will guide visitors to a saint celebrated on any day they choose. Additional saints will be added as they present themselves to Major.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

March 10 -- Feast of Saint Sojourner Truth

Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks
First, a word of gratitude that the Lutheran Church (or some synods in the US, anyway) is flexible with its canon of saints.  No one in the Catholic canon inspired much color commentary this year, but the Lutherans proclaim today to be the feast of both Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman.  This year, Saint Sojourner; next year, Saint Harriet. You probably know of Sojourner Truth's "Ain't I a Woman" speech at the 1851 Ohio Women's Rights Convention in Akron.  If you haven't heard it, take three and a half minutes to listen to Cicely Tyson's interpretation of it at the Congressional Tribute to Sojourner Truth. 

Film title humor -- always appropriate
Isabella Baumfree was the daughter of James and Elizabeth Baumfree, slaves in Swartekill, New York.  Although her father and maternal grandparents were born in Africa (Ghana and Guinea respectively), she spoke only Dutch as a small child.  At nine years old (in 1806) she was sold in a package deal with a flock of sheep for $100.  The new master beat her regularly, but sold her (sans sheep) for $105 in 1808.  That's a serious capital gain in just two years.  Flipped again eighteen months later, she fetched $175 in the market.  Not quite as substantial a gain, but 60% is still a decent return (albeit on an indecent investment).

Around age eighteen, she and a slave from a neighboring farm expressed a romantic attraction.  They had a child (Diana) but the make slave was beaten by his master for fathering children who would not be his master's property; he died of the injuries from that beating.  Isabella (later Sojourner) was wed to another slave within her household two years later.  She had five children altogether, but at least one (Thomas, named for his father) died young.  By Sophia's birth in 1826, the state of New York was concluding the long transition to emancipation.  Having been promised her freedom early in exchange for good behavior and disappointed when the promise was not realized, Isabella took her youngest daughter and walked away.  She later maintained that she did not run away, as that would "would have been wicked," but rather she simply walked away.

A family in the area took her in, paid her old master $20 for the balance of her labor, and helped her sue for the return of her son, Peter.  Emancipation was officially implemented in New York on July 4, 1827, but five-year-old Peter had been sold to a slave-owner in Alabama just prior to that.  Saint Sojourner won the case and was able to raise her son to adulthood.

She became an active campaigner for women's rights and abolition of slavery.  She became heavily involved in Christian education, and lived for a while at an experimental Christian community in Massachusetts.  She recruited black soldiers for the Union during the Civil War. Later, she campaigned for prison reform and against capital punishment.  She died in Battle Creek, Michigan, in November 1883, probably eighty-six years old.

The lawsuit was new to me this year.  It is a nice testament to the judicial system, which could enforce something right and proper in the midst of a massive and wicked institution.  And Sojourner Truth's case was certainly novel, although it was not unprecedented.  In 1781, Elizabeth "Mum Bett" Freeman sued in Massachusetts for her freedom.  She won, and was also awarded back wages.  Her case was cited as a precedent in the Quock Walker emancipation lawsuits, also in Massachusetts in 1781.

The use of saints as exemplars of virtue is a good thing, but it often obscures earlier and equally courageous pioneers within the same cause.  Rosa Parks, whose statue was just placed in the US Capitol building, was a hero of racial integration for her resistance to segregation on public transportation.  She was preceded in this particular act of civil disobedience by many people, including fellow Montgomery residents Aurelia Browder, Susie McDonald, Claudette Colvin and Mary Louise Smith.  Their collective lawsuit, Browder v. Gayle, led the US Supreme Court to strike down segregation on public transportation, was already filed in court when Ms. Parks took her stand by keeping her seat.  No doubt the bus boycott created some public context for the decision and subsequent achievements in the civil rights movement, but it is right to remember the others who resisted before her.  In fact, in 1944, a black US soldier, Booker T. Spicely, was shot to death by a white bus driver, Herman Lee Council, for refusing to give up his seat to a white passenger.  Two years before that, a black soldier named Henry Williams was shot and killed by a white bus driver named Grover Chandler for refusing to give up his seat.  (Chandler was arrested but not prosecuted; Council was tried but not convicted.)  And way back in 1865, while working at the Freedman's Hospital in Washington, DC, Sojourner Truth rode the streetcars to help force their desegregation. 

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