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For challenge and encouragement in your Christian life, read the life stories of the Heroes of the Faith. The novelized biographies of this series are inspiring and easy-to-read, ideal for Christians of any age or background. In Sojourner Truth, you’ll get to know the tall, powerful former slave whose biblically-based call for equality—for both blacks and women—secured her a place in American history. Appropriate for readers from junior high through adult, helpful for believers of any background, these ...
For challenge and encouragement in your Christian life, read the life stories of the Heroes of the Faith. The novelized biographies of this series are inspiring and easy-to-read, ideal for Christians of any age or background. In Sojourner Truth, you’ll get to know the tall, powerful former slave whose biblically-based call for equality—for both blacks and women—secured her a place in American history. Appropriate for readers from junior high through adult, helpful for believers of any background, these biographies encourage greater Christian commitment through the example of heroes like Sojourner Truth.
"She has strong arms," the owner told the parents in Low Dutch. "She'll make a good worker." Colonel Hardenbergh spoke English when he conducted business with his neighbors, but at home he preferred to speak the language of his Dutch ancestors. Slaves had been bought and sold on farms throughout this area of New York for more than 150 years.
In 1626, Dutch settlers had come to the United States and gathered in a colony they called New Netherland. They began importing slaves from Africa to work their farms. Thirty-eight years later, the British seized the colony, changed the name to New York, and continued to bring slaves into the area. By 1723, blacks composed about 15 percent of New York's population-making them a critical part of the local economy.
The Hardenbergh estate was in a hilly neighborhood called by the Dutch name Swartekill (now just north of Rifton), part of the town of Hurley. It was within sight of the Catskill Mountains and near two small rivers, the Swartekill and the Wallkill, which spilled into the larger Rondout Creek about six miles before it flowed into the Hudson River.
Johannes Hardenbergh, the owner of the infant Isabella, had been a member of the New York Colonial Assembly and a colonel in the Revolutionary War. He operated a gristmill and was a large landowner. His land reached from Swartekill south for several miles along the Wallkill River. Although most of Ulster County did not have slaves, the Hardenberghs were wealthier than most families and owned seven slaves.
Although Dutch descendants like Colonel Hardenbergh learned English, they clung to their native language. They taught their slaves only Dutch so that they could better control the slaves' behavior. If the slaves couldn't speak English, they couldn't communicate with the majority of the people around them.
Belle's parents had served Hardenbergh faithfully for many years, and Belle was their eleventh child. Belle's father was a tall, strong man who was proud of his ability to do hard work. James was called Baumfree, a Low Dutch word that meant "tree." But years of hard work had taken a toll on this big man.
Betsey, Belle's mother, was a big, stocky woman with large hands. She was called Mau Mau Brett. Mau Mau Brett was much younger than Baumfree, but they loved each other and had a good marriage. Each of their other children had died or been sold into slavery. Belle's parents worried that she might be sold, as well.
Probably all of Belle's ancestors were African. Later in her life, she heard a rumor that a Mohawk Indian was among her ancestors. This rumor may have emerged to explain how straight she stood and how tall-nearly six feet. Perhaps some white people felt a need to explain Belle's intelligence by attributing it to Mohawk ancestry. No evidence supported the rumor, however, and Belle herself said, "I'm the pure African. You can see that plain enough."
The exact date of her birth is unknown because slave births weren't recorded. Some people claimed she was either born in 1776 or 1777, but it is more likely that she was born about 1797.
Slavery cast a long shadow over the lives of slave parents and their children. They had no control over their families. Often, children were taken and sold from their families. Their parents couldn't protect them. The best that Baumfree and Mau Mau Brett could do for Belle was to teach her how to handle her life.
If a slave disobeyed, punishment was often harsh, so at an early age, Belle was taught obedience. Her parents also instilled in Belle the importance of hard work, honesty, and loyalty. Another value they taught was suffering in silence. "Never make a fuss in front of the white folk," her mother told Belle. "When you've got to cry, cry alone."
When Belle was about three years old, Colonel Hardenbergh died. His son Charles had recently built a large limestone house in the nearby hills. He moved his inheritance of livestock and ten slaves, including Belle and her parents, to his new home. The new property had no slave housing, so Charles moved his slaves into the damp cellar of the stone house to eat and sleep together.
During the day, only a small amount of light came in through the tiny cellar window. At night, the slaves lit a fire in the room and slept on hard wooden pallets. If it rained, water seeped through cracks in the walls and turned the floor into a pool of mud. During the winter, the slaves huddled together around a fire to escape the bitter cold and wrapped worn-out blankets around themselves as they tried to sleep on their pallets. In the summer, the cellar was hot, humid, and smelly; so most of the time, the slaves slept outside.
In spite of the harsh living conditions, Belle's parents remained obedient to their new master and worked hard at plowing and harvesting the crops in his fields. Consequently, their master developed some affection for the couple and eventually gave them their own land. Then Baumfree and Mau Mau Brett could raise their own corn, tobacco, and other crops to trade with their neighbors for additional food and clothing.
Soon after Belle and her parents moved to the Hardenbergh farm, her brother Peter was born. Now there was someone else for the little girl to love. One night when both children were still very young, their mother took them outside and told them to sit under a tree.
"My children," she said to them, "there is a God who hears and sees you." The two small children looked around them, but they couldn't see God.
"Where does God live?" Belle asked her mother.
"He lives in the sky," their mother answered, "and when you are beaten or cruelly treated or fall into any trouble, you must ask His help, and He will always hear and help you."
Clinging to the promise of a powerful guardian in the sky, Belle faced the difficulties in her life with increased confidence. This confidence continued to grow as Belle grew older and learned new things. On Sundays, Belle and the other slaves didn't have to work in their master's orchards or fields. Belle learned how to row a boat and ride a horse. Her mother taught her to obey her master, to recite the Lord's Prayer every day, and never to steal or lie.
One night, Belle heard her mother crying. "What's wrong, Mau Mau?" she gently asked.
"I'm groaning to think of my poor children," Mau Mau said. "They don't know where I be, and I don't know where they be. They look up at the stars, and I look up at the stars, but I can't tell where they be."
Later her mother told Belle how-many years earlier -Michael and Nancy, Belle's older brother and sister, had been snatched from their family. One snowy winter morning, some men in a horse-drawn sled stopped at the cabin where Belle's family lived. Michael was delighted when the men told him that he was going for a ride on the sled. Quickly the boy jumped onto the sled. Suddenly his joy turned to fear. One of the men walked out of the cabin with a large box containing his sister, Nancy. She was screaming.
Afraid of these men, Michael jumped off the sled, ran inside the cabin, and hid under a bed. The men came into the cabin, dragged Michael outside, put him on the sled, and then drove away. Their master had sold these children. Belle's parents never saw Michael or Nancy again.
Despite her mother's fears that Belle would be snatched away and sold to someone else, the family remained together until she was about eleven years old. In 1808, Charles Hardenbergh suddenly died, and his heirs decided to auction off his horses, cattle, and slaves.
The day of the auction, the Stone Ridge Farm was crowded with people. Belle stood trembling beside her mother. "I don't want to leave you, Mau Mau! What if they beat me? Why can't I go free like you and Baumfree?"
"Hush, Belle," her mother said softly in Dutch.
Then Belle's father, Baumfree said, "Nobody would buy a broken-down old horse like me. The law says Old Master's kin have to take care of me, so they're letting me and Mau Mau go free to get rid of us."
Almost thirty years earlier, a New York law had been passed that allowed any slave over fifty years old to be freed. The law also required that the freed slave be able to earn a living. Years of living in the cold, damp cellar had crippled Baumfree's legs and hands with arthritis. He was unable to work.
Even so, Hardenbergh's heirs decided to free both Baumfree and Mau Mau. Younger and in better health, Mau Mau could support both of them. The couple was allowed to continue living in the dark cellar as long as Mau Mau continued to work for the family. Baumfree and Mau Mau had no choice but to accept the offer and stay in the cellar. They couldn't speak any English, so they could not function in the English-speaking world around them. The couple knew Belle and Peter were headed to the slave auction.
With tears in her eyes, Mau Mau told Belle, "Child, you can't stay with us. All our other children were sold. Now it's your turn and your little brother's."
"Just remember what we've taught you, Belle," Baumfree said. "Obey your master and work hard."
Mau Mau chimed in, "And if you pray to God, He'll see that you're treated right."
A white man motioned for Belle. It was time for her to be auctioned. "Good-bye, Mau Mau. Goodbye, Baumfree."
Belle and her brother Peter stood in the auction area. Peter was sold first to a man who didn't live in the area. Although Belle felt like crying, she stood in stony silence. Over and over, she repeated the Lord's Prayer to herself.
The auctioneer called out, "Hardenbergh's Belle, age eleven, good strong body." The girl couldn't understand the words since they were in English, but she knew it meant that she was being sold. At first no one in the crowd offered a bid. Belle thought maybe she would be allowed to stay on the farm with her parents. Then the auctioneer ordered Belle to turn to the right. When the girl did not move, the man grabbed her and turned her. "Look how tall she is, even now. She'll be a big woman in maturity, have lots of children, and be able to do a lot of work."
Still no one offered to buy Belle. She continued to pray that she would not be sold. Then the auctioneer threw in a flock of sheep, saying, "They go with the girl."
John Neely, a shopkeeper from Kingston Landing, New York, stood in the audience and recognized a bargain that he couldn't pass up. He offered one hundred dollars, and with a crack from the auctioneer's gavel, the sheep and Belle were sold. Belle had a new master.
While Neely thought he had struck a good deal, his wife was not impressed. "This girl can't speak English," she yelled at her husband. "Sure, she looks strong, but what good is she for me? When I ask for a pot, she gives me a spoon. When I ask for a skillet, she hands me a broom." When Belle couldn't understand Mrs. Neely's instructions and responded in Dutch, Mrs. Neely beat Belle. Belle tried to learn English from her new masters, but Mrs. Neely had no patience for teaching. War was declared between Mrs. Neely and her young slave, and Belle had no chance of winning. Mrs. Neely repeatedly slapped Belle. "I told you the word for that thing is broom! Broom! Say broom!"
One day Mrs. Neely's frustrations grew unbearable. That Sunday morning, she sent her slave out to the barn where Mr. Neely was waiting for her. In the barn, Belle found her master heating some metal rods over red-hot coals. Without offering any explanation, Mr. Neely grabbed Belle's hands and tied them together. He tore Belle's shirt off her back and began to beat the girl's back with the rods. Belle pleaded with her master to stop and called out to God for help. Finally she fainted. Belle lay in the straw, soaked with her own blood, and wept bitterly. It was her first beating, and she determined to do whatever was necessary to avoid another one.
Afterward, Belle crept off into the woods and cried out to God. "Was it right for them to beat me, God? You've got to get me a new master. You have to help me, God." But Belle's prayers were not instantly answered.
Mrs. Neely continued to scream at her young slave with confusing instructions, but Belle learned how to cope. On her own initiative, Belle scrubbed the floors so clean that Mrs. Neely had no cause to complain. Slowly, Belle learned to speak some English, but her first language, Dutch, always showed in her accented speech.
As Belle worked for the Neelys, she sometimes wondered, Will I ever see my family again? One winter evening, when Belle had almost lost hope of seeing her family, her father arrived at the Neely home. Baumfree looked old and very sick. He told Belle how a family named Simmons had rented the Big House but permitted her parents to continue living in the cellar. Mau Mau worked hard, but they barely had enough money to buy food or clothing.
Belle listened to her father and didn't mention her own struggles. Baumfree noticed that despite the deep snow on the ground, his daughter didn't have warm clothing or shoes. When he asked about it, Belle explained, "I can't wear Mrs. Neely's hand-me-downs. They are too small."
As her father prepared to leave, he hugged Belle, but she drew back in pain. Baumfree walked out to the gate of the property. Belle followed her father through the snow by stepping in his large footprints. Once the pair was out of the Neelys' sight, Belle showed him her scarred back. Baumfree was filled with rage at her beating, but even worse was the knowledge that he hadn't been able to protect his daughter. Although Baumfree was old and crippled, he was free. He vowed to use his freedom to help his daughter.
As he left, Baumfree promised Belle that he would try to help her. Unfortunately for Belle, change took time. She continued working for the Neely family.
After about two years with the Neelys, God answered what Belle later called a "desperate prayer." Somehow old Baumfree persuaded Martin Schryver to purchase Belle from the Neelys for $105. The fisherman didn't own any other slaves but had a farm and a tavern on the Rondout Creek. This new location was only about five miles from the Neely farm.
Belle worked hard for her new owner, partially from gratitude but partially from fear of receiving another beating. The Schryvers were a coarse and uneducated couple, but they weren't cruel. They spoke both English and Dutch, so Belle could easily talk with them. Without someone yelling at her constantly, Belle's English became much more fluent.
The Schryvers treated Belle well, although sometimes she felt uncomfortable around the coarse men who frequented their tavern. A hard worker, Belle hoed cornfields, hauled in fish, and gathered roots and herbs for the homemade beer sold in the tavern. She had a great deal of freedom to roam outdoors. Occasionally watching the many white-sailed sloops on the Hudson River, she was startled to see one of the new steamboats throwing up black smoke.
Once when Belle was about thirteen, a "grand ball" was held at Schryvers' tavern. She was fascinated to watch the women wearing high-crowned white caps and starched and ironed dresses. As dancers pranced around the tavern, they shouted out a popular song, "Washington's Ball," which celebrated George Washington for planting the tree of liberty. After hearing this song at the ball, Belle was able to sing it for the rest of her life.
With her new owners, Belle had plenty to eat. She grew almost six feet tall before she turned fourteen years old. During the winter, Belle had a warm shawl and even shoes-a cast-off pair from her master because women's shoes were too small for her large feet.
Unfortunately, Belle's parents were doing poorly as freed slaves. They found it difficult to get enough food to eat and grew ill. Too soon, Mau Mau Brett grew sick and died. Mr. Simmons came to the Schryvers to take Belle to the funeral. He explained to Belle, "This past winter was very hard. One day Baumfree had gone out to do a small chore for pennies. When he returned to the cellar, he found Mau Mau in a coma. By morning, she'd died."
Belle and her brother Peter were both able to attend their mother's funeral and visit their father. Poor Baumfree was grief-stricken. He cried out, "Oh, I had thought God would take me out first-Mau Mau was so much smarter than me and could get about and take care of herself, and I am so old and helpless. What will happen to me? I can't do anything anymore; my children are all gone, and here I am left helpless and alone."
Excerpted from Sojourner Truth by W. Terry Whalin Copyright © 1997 by Barbour Publishing, Inc.. Excerpted by permission.
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