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Sojourner Truth’s Carte de Visite

Sojourner Truth was one of the most widely known African American women of the nineteenth century, rivaled only by ex-slave Harriet Tubman, who was twenty years her junior. Her life shows the continuity between women’s rights activism before and after the Civil War. Throughout her lifetime in the public eye Truth consistently refused to separate race from sex, insisting that black women’s voices be heard in both the freedom movements that affected their lives.

A good measure of Sojourner Truth’s prominence can be traced to the widespread circulation of her image. To support her career, Truth sold 2 ½ by 4 inch cardboard postcards called cartes de visite at her lectures and speaking engagements. Claiming all legal rights to distribute her own likeness, she copyrighted them in her own name starting in 1864 and added the caption “I sell the shadow to support the substance.” Shadow was a widely used term for the new medium of photography so she was making a play on words.

Sojourner Truth lectured on suffrage platforms and participated in suffrage debates from the 1850s to the 1880s, claiming a place in the national discussion about the rights of both newly freed slaves and women. Her presence served as a challenge to the racism which was so deeply embedded in the white suffrage movement. African American women believed they had just as strong a right to full citizenship as white women and they acted on that conviction. They were there from the start. They made a difference.