Sojourner Truth Fights Dependence on Government: Moves Freed Slaves off Welfare in Washington to Jobs in Upstate New York

By Mabee, Carleton | Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, January 31, 1990 | Go to article overview

Sojourner Truth Fights Dependence on Government: Moves Freed Slaves off Welfare in Washington to Jobs in Upstate New York


Mabee, Carleton, Afro-Americans in New York Life and History


Sojourner Truth Fights Dependence on Government: Moves Freed Slaves Off Welfare in Washington To Jobs in Upstate New York

Toward the end of the Civil War thousands of recently freed blacks fled from their slave homes to Washington. They chose Washington because it was the home of Father Abraham Lincoln. But in Washington they were often without jobs. They were often dependent on handouts from private donors or the government.

Soon after Sojourner Truth arrived in the Washington area in 1864, she talked to the freed slaves in a church building in one of the temporary camps which the federal government provided for them. According to her recollection:

She told them to get off the government and take care of themselves....

She told the colored people they were in disgrace living in the poor house off the government -- they didn't like that.

They turned her out of the church, but she went to the barracks and she did "blow." She told them to hold up their heads and be men, then they commenced to understand her and sing:

Free, free, free indeed,

Free, free, my people are free,

Sound the loud cymbals,

My people are free.

Sojourner Truth, having herself had cruel experiences growing up as a slave in Ulster County, New York, felt that slave masters had left scars on these blacks which made her "heart bleed."(2) She was also aware that some of those who had been entrusted to give out relief supplies to the freed slaves sold the supplies instead, filling their own pockets. But she felt the most important action she could take for the freed slaves was to prod them to become self-supporting. Giving them handouts was making them "lazy," she said. "There are lots of them that are worse than the hogs in the street." When she herself handed out relief clothes to them, clothes such as Northern people sent down to Washington in boxes, some of them wore the clothes a week, she said, and then instead of washing them. threw them away, and came back to "grab" more relief clothes.(3) Nevertheless, Truth was fundamentally optimistic. She had faith, perhaps naive faith, that with God's help the lives of these freed slaves could be dramatically improved. Her optimism was a significant part of her appeal to both blacks and whites.

As the war came to a close, Congress created the Freedmen's Bureau to help the freed slaves, as by providing them temporary welfare assistance. For any government agency to provide welfare assistance was perceived by many Americans, including Truth, as scarcely compatible with the American tradition of individual responsibility. So when the Bureau developed plans to move able-bodied but idle freed slaves "off the government" by resettling them in jobs elsewhere, Truth felt called to help carry out these plans.

Was Truth likely to be effective in helping to carry out this program? On the one hand, the Bureau, an agency of the War Department, was headed by General O.O. Howard whom Truth came to admire as desiring to be just to blacks; Howard University is named for him. On the other hand, many top Bureau officials were fairly conservative army officers, and hardly any of them outright abolitionists such as Truth had usually associated with in her reform efforts.(4) Moreover, Truth through much of her life as a public speaker had not been accustomed to work closely with any agency, private or public. She was inclined to be independent, a free spirit. Nonetheless, Truth had home bases in both Michigan and New York State where there was a strong demand for black workers. She could bring her own experience as a freed slave to this program. In addition, she had already been working with the freed slaves in the Washington region and won their confidence.

In the fall of 1864, Truth had worked first briefly at the government's camp for freed slaves on Mason's Island in the Potomac River, speaking to the freed slaves, teaching them, nursing them.(5) Later she had worked for more than six months at another government camp for freed slaves, called Freedmen's Village, across the Potomac at Arlington Heights, Virginia. …

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