Truth and Tubman: Women who fought against slavery

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Sandra A. Johnson

Sojourner Truth, named Isabella Baumfree by her parents (c. 1797-1883), and Harriet Tubman, named Araminta Ross by her parents (c. 1826-1913) were very much alike. So much alike, I usually confused one with the other. Both were black slaves who gained their freedom, changed their names, and protested against slavery. But the likeness between them ends there. Sojourner Truth was different from Harriet Tubman in appearance, personality, and method of fighting slavery.

One important way was in appearance. Truth was over six feet tall and slim while Tubman was a foot shorter and stout. Sojourner dressed in the Quaker style, a white bonnet worn on the head, dresses light in weight, and a shawl over the shoulders. Tubman wrapped a bandana on her head, her dresses were made of heavy coarse cotton, and she didn't wear a shawl. Truth had a long face and wore metal-rimmed eyeglasses. She had a commanding figure that attracted people's attention, whereas Tubman had a full broad face, wore no eyeglasses, and looked confused, but she was a woman cool, confident, and fearless.

Truth was also different from Tubman in personality. Sojourner was an obedient slave. She saw her slaveowner as god-like in his power over her and believed he could read her mind. The slaveowner beat her, but she was always willing to please him. She did more work than the other slaves and disregarded anyone who talked to her of the injustice of being a slave. Truth was patient. Once freed, she looked at the big picture of slavery and knew it would take time for all slaves to be free. She believed slavery could be ended peacefully by moral persuasion. She became a willing activist, giving antislavery speeches at abolition meetings and women's rights conventions to build sentiment against the institution. During the Civil War, Truth told President Lincoln he was doing a good job when she met him on Oct. 29, 1864.

In contrast, Tubman was disobedient. She fought back when beaten by the slaveowner. One slaveowner liked to whip her every morning. When the whippings took place. Tubman had already put on extra layers of clothing and hollered loud as if she were in pain. Tubman had no patience with slavery. As a free woman, she undertook a personal crusade against it, devising ways of helping family members escape who might otherwise soon be sold from Maryland into the Deep South. Later, she led anyone willing to travel the Underground Railroad to freedom. During the Civil War, Tubman believed President Lincoln was dragging his feet about freeing the slaves, and she didn't want to meet him.

The most important way Truth differed from Tubman was that each had a unique style of fighting slavery. Truth fought within the system, using hymns and songs to relax a hostile audience before she gave her speech. She sang such songs as "There is a Holy City," and "Away to Canada." In addition, she used her slave story as a weapon to help shape a movement toward freedom for all black slaves. At the meetings, Truth spoke of the emotional suffering she endured being auctioned off from her family to another slaveowner. The details of her story moved the audience to tears.

Unlike Truth, Tubman fought outside the system using hymns and songs as a code to alert the slaves that it was time to leave for the north. She sang "Go Down Moses," and "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." Also, Tubman used a revolver, a real weapon, to encourage runaway slaves to keep going on the Underground Railroad. Tubman pointed the revolver at the head of the tired runaway slave who wanted to turn back, and she said, "Dead niggers tell no tales; you go or die!"

Now that I know the differences between these two famous women, I will never again confuse one with the other.

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