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Sojourner Truth: Nubian Freedom Rider

In 1865, one year after visiting President Abraham Lincoln in the White House, Sojourner Truth worked to desegregate the horse car system in Washington, D.C.

According to Carleton Mabee, author of Sojourner Truth ‚ Slave, Prophet, Legend, New York University Press, 1993, 1995, Sojourner Truth was working with freed slaves in Washington D.C., at the time.

"New York City horse cars had often been segregated, with blacks allowed to ride only on the outside platform, or only in certain infrequent cars reserved for blacks," Mabee wrote. Sojourner, inspired by Frederick Douglas and other famous and not-so-famous blacks who challenged the segregated horse car system, often found herself ignored by drivers when she tried to get them to stop. And if a driver did stop, she would be told to sit in the Jim Crow car with all the other black passengers.

"One day, in 1865, Truth signaled a car to stop," Mabee said. "When it did not, she ran after it yelling. The conductor kept ringing his bell so that he could pretend he had not heard her. When at last the conductor had to stop the car to take on white passengers, Truth also climbed into the car, scolding the conductor: It's a shame to make a lady run so." Sojourner Truth, who rode the horse car that day ‚ and many horse cars afterward, sat where she pleased; not where she was told.

"Truth acted courageously for equal rights," Mabee said. "She risked being humiliated. She risked her physical safety. By her forthright example, she encouraged other blacks to ride the horse cars, and helped to bring about a significant step toward equality."

One of Truth's numerous allies was well-known Michigan abolitionist Laura Haviland, and it was in the company of Haviland that Sojourner Truth was slammed against a door, by a conductor, and received a bruised right shoulder. "Truth and Haviland then reported the incident to the president of the streetcar company," Mabee said. "He promptly dismissed the conductor, the second conductor Truth had caused to be dismissed."

When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on that Montgomery bus she had no idea her single act of defiance would change her life ‚ and the lives of countless others ‚ forever. And she certainly wasn't looking to get herself arrested or to carve her name into the history books.

Her feet hurt, she was weary, and she was tired of having the color of her skin be the determining factor in where she could ‚ and couldn't ‚ sit on a bus.

The situation was much the same for Sojourner Truth. Mabee said Truth initiated her ride-ins apparently without a plan. "She acted boldly, and with flair," he said. "She knew that because her name was known, she could focus attention of the illegality and injustice of segregation. She repeated her ride-ins often enough and over a long enough period of time to drive home her point."

Should we be any less brave and diligent today?