Sojourner Truth


Unknown photographer, Sojourner Truth, 1864, albumen print, 3 1/4 × 2 1/4 in. (8.1 × 5.7 cm). National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

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Abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth was a pacifist before the Civil War, a stance borne of her religious convictions; she hoped that freedom could be won thorough strategic reform and civil disobedience rather than violence. But after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, she came to believe that the war would eventually free all slaves.

Truth engaged in a variety of activities to aid the cause of former slaves and of abolition in general. Beginning in 1864, she worked for the National Freedmen’s Relief Association and cared for those flooding into the nation’s capital to escape slavery. For a time she worked as a nurse and housekeeper at the Freedmen’s Hospital, the forerunner of Howard University Hospital. She also collected food and clothing for black troops and actively recruited volunteers for the Union army, including the 54th Massachusetts Regiment. Truth’s grandson, James Caldwell, was an early enlistee in the 54th.

Like most portraits of the era—painted or photographic—this image was carefully staged to convey the sitter’s values. Her clothing is plain and well worn, suggesting her past as a slave and a Quaker simplicity. The knitting she holds was recognized as a symbol of industrious domesticity and the virtue of being productive even when seated and at rest. But it is her confrontational gaze and defiant facial expression that makes the image arresting, one that communicates the sitter’s tremendous will, moral conviction, and resilience.

The inscription below the image is cryptic: “I sell the Shadow to Support the Substance.” It alludes to a phrase popular with photographers in promoting the camera’s ability to capture all things transient: “secure the shadow ’ere the substance fade.” Many historians have interpreted Truth’s use of the phrase as her way of referring to the fact that she sold the portraits to fund her work for racial and gender equality. That is, by selling the “shadow”—meaning the photographic image itself—she supported “the Substance”: herself (Truth, literally and metaphorically) and her important work for social reform.

The civil rights leader sold these portraits at her lectures and rallies. In contrast to the conventional practice, she retained the copyright of her likeness to ensure that she, not the photographer, would profit from the sales. When the portrait was made in 1864, the albumen printing process dominated commercial photography. A dozen exposures could be produced at once, making images more affordable. People began using small cards with their image printed on them as calling cards, or cartes de visite, which were eagerly collected and often kept in albums to be shared with friends and relatives.

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