African-American men and women have paved the way through the degradation of slavery, which began in 1619, and have persevered during the struggle. African-Americans are standing on the shoulders of our countless descendants of the African motherland and the well-known figures of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.
One who has stood tall in African-American history has been Sojourner Truth, an abolitionist and crusader for women's rights. Born a slave in New York state, her original name was Isabella Bomfree. Her family was broken up while she was still a small child, and she suffered serious beatings at the hands of at least one master. Her last owner, John Dumont, promised to free her one year before slavery was to officially end in New York, in 1827. However, he changed his mind and refused to let her go, claiming an injured hand kept her from working. She ran away and, with the help of some Quakers, filed a suit in court to successfully force the return of her young son, who had been illegally sold out of state.
Deeply religious since childhood, she joined a religious community led by a self-proclaimed prophet named Matthias from 1832 to 1835. In 1843, she made the religious decision to change her name to Sojourner Truth and began traveling through the North, preaching at camp meetings. She also joined a utopian abolitionist-feminist commune in Massachusetts known as the Northampton Association, through which she met abolitionists David Ruggles and Frederick Douglass.
Truth began addressing antislavery and women's rights groups and soon gained a reputation as a strong speaker. When challenged in 1851 by a minister who stated that since Jesus had been male, only men should have rights, she responded with her famous "And Ain't I a Woman" speech: "That man over there say that woman needs to be helped into carriages and lifted over ditches - nobody ever helps me into carriages or over mud puddles, and ain't I a woman?
"I have plowed and planted and gathered into barns -I could work as much as a man and bear the last as well, and ain't I a woman?
"Then that little man in black there - he say women can't have as much rights as men because Christ wasn't a woman -where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman. Man had nothing to do with him."
During the Civil War, Truth nursed African-American soldiers and moved to Northern Virginia to help destitute former slaves. She established a job placement program in 1867 and petitioned Congress to set aside western land for ex-slaves. Though illiterate, she dictated her autobiography, which was published in the 1850s under the title "The Narrative of Sojourner Truth."
We thank God for the broad, strong, unfailing shoulders of Sojourner Truth. She will long be remembered in our African-American history as being very candid, bold and unafraid. She was most persistent with perseverance in what she believed in.
She has made a significant impact on all of us. As to her namesake, there is a women's club, a Sojourner Truth Federated Club in Steubenville, which has been organized for more than two decades.
She will never be forgotten, and has set an example for all women and men.
The most important phenomenon is that African-Americans must remain or become persistent as we persevere in the struggle. There always will be a dark cloud of the enemy. Nevertheless, our faith will sustain us. Be bold, be vigilant, as the roaring demon is always seeking whom he may devour. An injustice anywhere is a threat to injustice everywhere. Look for equal justice under the law, with liberty and justice for all.
God of our weary years, God of silent tears, keep us forever in the path we pray.
(Wiggins is president of the Ohio Valley Black Caucus Inc.)