(In honor of Black History Month)
Isabella, the daughter of James and Elizabeth Baumfree, was born a slave in New York state about 1797. No one knows the exact date, because birth records weren’t kept for “property.”
Did her parents know the name means, “consecrated to God?” Even if they chose the name for its meaning, those parents could not have dreamed of the future awaiting their Baby Belle.
Her early years were difficult. Belle was sold five times, several times to cruel masters.
At age eighteen or so, Belle fell in love with Robert, a young slave from a nearby farm. The couple had a daughter. But Belle’s master, John Dumont, forbade her to see Robert again. According to the law, all children of the union would belong to Robert’s master, not Dumont.
Two years later, Dumont forced Belle to marry an older slave. They had three children: Peter, Elizabeth, and Sophia.
In 1826, Belle escaped the Dumont farm with Baby Sophia. In a vision, God showed her a particular home to go to. That home belonged to a Quaker family, the Wageners, who took in the young woman and her baby. They even paid Belle’s price to Dumont and made her a free woman. Belle became a housekeeper, then a maid.
Shortly after her escape from slavery, Belle learned that her five-year old son, Peter, had been illegally sold in Alabama. She took the matter to court and won her case. Peter was returned to New York. That was the first time a black woman challenged a white man in a U.S. court. It was also the first time of many that Belle’s resolve and courage were put on display.
Several years later Belle was falsely accused of poisoning her former employer. In 1835 she took that case to court and won again.
Someone must have encouraged Belle to tell her story of being a slave and becoming a free woman. But she had never learned to read or write, so a friend wrote as Belle dictated. A Northern Slave was published in 1850.
In her book, Belle explained that several years after she was freed, God revealed himself to her, “with all the suddenness of a flash of lightning, showing her, in the twinkling of an eye, that he was all over, that he pervaded the universe, and that there was no place where God was not.”
The book sold many copies and Belle became well-known. She was asked to speak at a women’s rights convention in Massachusetts. Before long, Belle was traveling with abolitionist, George Thompson, speaking against slavery and for human rights.
In 1851, Belle gave a speech at another women’s conference, this time in Ohio. She spoke convincingly (and extemporaneously) about women being every bit as capable as a man:
“I have plowed and reaped and husked and chopped and mowed, and can any man do more than that?”
And, no doubt with a twinkle in her eye, she added:
“As for intellect, all I can say is, if a woman have a pint, and a man a quart — why can’t she have her little pint full? You need not be afraid to give us our rights for fear we will take too much, for we can’t take more than our pint’ll hold. The poor men seems to be all in confusion, and don’t know what to do. Why children, if you have woman’s rights, give it to her and you will feel better. You will have your own rights, and they won’t be so much trouble.”
She concluded by asking: “And how came Jesus into the world? Through God who created him and the woman who bore him. Man, where was your part?”
It’s not surprising that some were displeased with Belle’s speeches. One time she was told that the building where she was to preach would be burned down if she dared to speak. “Then I will speak to the ashes,” she replied.
Belle was also physically assaulted. One brutal attack caused permanent injury, and she had to walk with a cane for the rest of her life.
In 1863, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote an article about Belle for the Atlantic Monthly:
“I do not recollect ever to have been conversant with anyone who had more of that silent and subtle power which we call personal presence…She seemed perfectly self-possessed and at her ease. An audience was what she wanted—it mattered not whether high or low, learned or ignorant. She had things to say, and was ready to say them at all times, and to anyone.”
Imagine. A slave woman who never had the opportunity to go to school, never learned to read or write. Yet the power of her spoken word helped bring the end of slavery and pave the way for women to be granted the right to vote.
“There is no difficulty that cannot be defeated.
There is no victory that cannot be achieved,
if you believe in the power of God!”
Of course, by the time she achieved notoriety, Belle was known by another name.
You see, Belle had asked God for a new name several decades before the Civil War. Again, it was the result of a vision. She said God chose her new first name based on the fact she would travel. Then Belle asked God for a second name, “’cause everybody has two names.” And the Lord granted her request. Her second name proclaimed what Belle always declared from her podium.
Perhaps you remember Sojourner Truth.
(Photo from http://www.wikipedia.org.)