|Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks|
|Film title humor -- always appropriate|
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.