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Direct action campaign to halt Jim Crow streetcars: 1864 | by Washington Area Spark
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Direct action campaign to halt Jim Crow streetcars: 1864

An 1864 photograph of Sojourner Truth from her book "I sell the shadow to support the substance, Sojourner Truth.”


Sojourner Truth, an abolitionist, women’s rights activist, emancipated slave and itinerant evangelist, became arguably the most well known 19th Century African American woman. Born around 1791, Isabella (her birth name) was the daughter of James and Betsey, slaves of Colonel Ardinburgh Hurley, Ulster County, and New York.


From a young age, she was bought and sold several times by slave-owners in New York. She married an enslaved man named Thomas, and together they had five children.


On July 4, 1827, the New York State Legislature emancipated Isabella, yet her owners at the time, the Dumonts, would not comply because they claimed she still owed them work. One morning before dawn, with a baby in her arms, she walked away from the Dumonts and took refuge with an abolitionist family who lived five miles away.


During this time, she experienced a religious conversion and became active in the nearby Methodist church. Eventually, she moved with her son, Peter, to New York City, where she worked as a live-in domestic. She became involved in a religious cult known as the Kingdom, whose leader, Matthias, beat her and assigned her the heaviest workload.


The turning point in Isabella’s life came on June 1, 1843, when at the age of 52 she adopted a new name, Sojourner Truth, and headed east for the purpose of “exhorting the people to embrace Jesus, and refrain from sin.”


For several years, she preached at camp meetings and lived in a utopian community, the Northampton Association for Education and Industry, which devoted itself to transcending class, race, and gender distinctions.


Even though the community lasted less than five years, many reform-minded influential people visited Northampton, including abolitionist leaders Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison. Through these connections, she began to speak at public events on behalf of abolition and women’s rights. In 1851, she gave her famous “Ain’t I A Woman” speech at a Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio.


In 1857, Truth bought a house with the help of friends in Harmonia, a small Spiritualist community near Battle Creek, Michigan. She supported herself through speaking engagements and selling photographs of herself as well as her book, Narrative of Sojourner Truth, written by an amanuensis, since she was illiterate.


When the Civil War began, Truth threw her energy into soliciting food and clothing for the volunteer regiments of black Union soldiers. Then the plight of freed slaves caught her attention, many of whom were living in refugee camps in the nation’s capital.


During her time in Washington, D.C., she waged a one-woman campaign to desegregate the city’s horse-drawn streetcars. A law was passed in 1864 prohibiting Jim Crow cars in the city, but the signs still remained up in many cars and drivers often enforced segregation.


Truth would sit in the “white” section and refuse to move. As white supremacist drivers came to know her they would refuse to pick her up. Truth would notify the company and complain to the newspapers when it occurred.


Truth’s efforts prevented Jim Crow from becoming custom and the city’s trolley’s were never Jim Crow, even during the early part of the 20th Century when white supremacists were re-establishing segregation in the city.


Her direct action technique of claiming her rights would later evolve into the sit-ins that became a widespread tactic in 1960.


She championed the idea of a colony for freed slaves in the American West where they would have a chance to become self-supporting and self-reliant. She garnered numerous signatures for her petition urging the Federal government to provide land for this endeavor. Although she presented the petition to President Ulysses S. Grant, her dream never materialized.


Nevertheless, when a large migration of freed southern slaves made their way west in the fall of 1879, despite her advanced age, Truth traveled to Kansas to help them get settled. Sojourner Truth died in Battle Creek, Michigan on November 26, 1883. She was 92.


--Partially excerpted from the Black Past Remembers and Reclaimed.


For a detailed post on a direct action campaign to end Jim Crow at the U.S. Capitol, see


For more information and related images, see


The photographer is unknown. The image is from "I sell the shadow to support the substance, Sojourner Truth" 1864.

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Taken sometime in 1864