What is a Google Doodle?

Who was Sojourner Truth? Google honors American abolitionist, women’s rights advocate

Google is kicking off Black History Month with a homepage tribute to a woman “who devoted her life to the cause of speaking truth to power.”

The tech giant’s doodle team called in Philadelphia-based artist Loveis Wise for Friday’s colorful illustration in honor of Sojourner Truth, an African-American abolitionist and women’s rights advocate who escaped from slavery to freedom in 1826.

Born into slavery in 1797 as Isabella Baumfree in Swartekill, New York, she was bought and sold four times, sometimes to cruel and violent slave masters like John Neely, who beat her regularly, according to History.com. She ended up in West Park, New York, at the home of John Dumont.

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As the state began legislating emancipation, Dumont initially promised Truth freedom, but had a change of heart. She would eventually escape Dumont’s estate for a nearby abolitionist family with only her infant child in tow. The other children, still legally bound to Dumont, were left behind.

Abolitionist Isaac Van Wagenen bought her freedom and helped Truth reunite with her 5-year-old son, who had been illegally sold into slavery in Alabama. According to History.com, she was the first black woman to sue a white man in a U.S. court — and win.

Her time with the Van Wagenens enchanted Truth into becoming an ardent Christian. She eventually left the family for New York City, where she worked as a housekeeper for multiple preachers. It was in 1843 that “she declared that the Spirit called on her to preach the truth, renaming herself Sojourner Truth,” according to the National Women’s History Museum.

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As Truth began preaching, she’d meet renowned abolitionists Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison, who encouraged her to speak on the evils of slavery. Despite never having learned to read or write, her dictations resulted in an 1850 autobiography, “The Narrative of Sojourner Truth,” which garnered the rising activist national recognition along with the company of women’s rights advocates Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.

Truth would go on to give lectures and speeches around the country, including her most famous lecture at a women’s conference in Akron, Ohio, in 1851.

The Ohio “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech and its exact wording have been contested, but the message reverberated regardless. In the speech, Truth argued in favor of intersectionality between the women’s movement and the abolitionist movement. As Vox.com wrote, Truth preached “that women can change the world” and her blackness “did not make her not a woman.” 

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She was especially concerned at the time that some civil rights advocates, such as Douglass, did not take black women’s rights as seriously as black men’s.

Truth faced a similar problem with Anthony and Stanton. According to PBS.org, “she disagreed with them on many issues, most notably Stanton's threat that she would not support the black vote if women were denied it.”

“Children, who made your skin white? Was it not God? Who made mine black?” she famously asked. “Was it not the same God? Am I to blame, therefore, because my skin is black? …. Does not God love colored children as well as white children? And did not the same Savior die to save the one as well as the other?”

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Truth’s advocacy continued through the Civil War years. Like Harriet Tubman, Truth helped recruit black soldiers and gather food and supplies for black refugees. Her work caught the attention of President Abraham Lincoln.

On Oct. 29, 1864, Lincoln invited Truth to the White House and showed her a Bible given to him by people of color in Baltimore. As literacy had previously been prohibited to people of color, and though Truth was illiterate, “the significance of this leap towards equality was universally understood,” Biography.com reported in 2013, 130 years after Truth’s death.

During her time in Washington, Truth wore her courage proudly and even rode in whites-only streetcars. After the war ended, she continued to fight for impoverished, freed blacks by finding them job opportunities.

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She died of old age at her home in Battle Creek, Michigan, on 1883, where some of her daughters also lived. According to History.com, Truth was 86 years old when she died, but her memorial tombstone states she was 105.

“Creating this Doodle came with a ton of research and I was inspired by the few photographs taken of her which displayed her strong and beautiful stature,” Wise, a black woman, said about Friday’s illustration. “I was also inspired by her journey to share knowledge about the horrors of slavery after being the first African-American to win a court case when she fought for her child's freedom who was sold illegally.”

Learn more about Truth at google.com/doodles.

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