Isabella Baumfree was born into slavery in New York around the beginning of the 19th century. She spoke Dutch growing up because it was the daily language of the family who owned her. Isabella was sold several times before escaping to freedom with one of her daughters. Soon after her escape, New York emancipated all its slaves in 1827.
However, Isabella’s son was illegally sold to a man in Alabama. So, what did she do when she discovered this situation? She took the issue to court and won! Her son was returned. Isabella Baumfree became one of the first African-American women to successfully challenge a white man in court.
A few years later, Isabella was accused of being involved in the murder of a man for whom she had been a housekeeper. Not only was she cleared of charges, but she brought a suit of slander against the couple who had implicated her. Once again, Isabella was successful in her court case.
Don’t Give In to Resistance
Isn’t this amazing? An African American woman prior to the Civil War who didn’t just stand up for what she believed, but she was successful in bringing justice to herself and her family in a court of law. It would have been easy for Isabella to give in to the resistance she faced. She could have thrown her hands up in the air and said it’s not worth it.
I’m a woman.
No one is going to treat me fairly.
But I’m glad she didn’t. I’m glad she didn’t conform to the opinions of others. I’m glad she didn’t think her actions wouldn’t make a difference in the unjust society she lived in.
You might not recognize the name Isabella Baumfree. It’s more likely you will recognize the name she took in 1843: Sojourner Truth. This name was symbolic of her devotion to spreading the Methodist religion and the abolition of slavery. Truth became active in the abolitionist community. She met such figures as William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass.
A decade before the Civil War broke out, she made an improvised speech at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention. The speech came to be known as the “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech. Although she may have never actually said those exact words, the impact of the speech was tremendous. One of the lines from Sojourner Truth’s speech that day was, “If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again!”
Knowing Her Integrity
Sojourner Truth’s picture would fit perfectly next to the definition of a person standing up for their beliefs. She is a shining example of knowing her integrity, which is our Fundamental of Success of being strong in understanding the principles and values of her heart.
But even in the radical circles of the abolitionist movement, Sojourner Truth was seen as extreme. She lobbied for universal suffrage. Not wanting to stop at just freedom for African Americans, she wanted the right to vote for people of any color…both men and women. During the Civil War, Truth helped recruit African American troops to join the Union war effort. In addition, she attempted to persuade Congress to help newly freed slaves possess their own land. Her vision was for them to be self-sufficient. She didn’t want them to become the equivalent of indentured servants to their former white owners. In the end, her efforts in this regard did not achieve her desired outcome.
So what leadership lessons can we learn from the story of Sojourner Truth? From having the courage to go to court to win her son’s freedom to her call for the right to vote for all races and genders, Sojourner Truth took action because she was so in touch with her integrity. She knew what she believed in with so much vigor that it burned like a fire within her. Her only option was to live out that integrity through her actions.
One of the things you and I can do when it feels like our lives are a little discombobulated, and things don’t seem to be going exactly as we would like, is to return to our integrity. We can search the depths of our hearts to find the principles and values we believe in. If we reflect on them every day, eventually our actions will naturally flow from our integrity.
We need to remember writing our own story is an inside-out process. Living by our principles and values doesn’t just happen on its own. It is the result of doing the work to become solid in the inside fundamental of knowing our integrity. When we don’t feel like we are living to our full potential, we need to return to within ourselves.
It’s easy and convenient to look for hacks and quick fixes in the outside world. But no matter how effective these hacks might be, they won’t work in the long term if they are not connected to the inside work of knowing who we are and the story we are writing.
Right Side Up Again
Do you want to be a more effective leader in your classroom? Do you want to build stronger relationships with your students? Do you want the work you do to make a difference in the world?
Then let’s apply the lesson we learned from Sojourner Truth and know what we stand for so strongly that it burns like a fire within us. It’s about doing less and becoming more from the inside-out. When we do, the fire burning within us becomes a light that illuminates a path for others.
And it takes us one step closer to getting the world turned right side up again.