Dr. Larry Murphy.

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“Sojourner Truth: A Biography” is the newest book by Dr. Larry G. Murphy of Garret-Evangelical Theological Seminary, published this year by Greenwood Biographies, an imprint of ABC-CLIO, LLC, who produce advanced educational texts and specialized books for the well-read non-scholar.

Sojourner Truth (1797-1883), African American abolitionist and women’s rights activist, seems to have lived a life well-suited to the vivid yet disciplined portrayal Dr. Murphy offers. The book is an interesting mix of academic writing and more popular narrative, Dr. Murphy’s response to the publisher’s request for accessibility.

Isabelle Bomefree’s African parents – her mother perhaps from the Guinea Coast, her father given the Dutch surname for his treelike strength and height – were owned by Ulster County New Yorker Johannes Hardenbergh. Dutch was the language of the household.

While many of the Dutch in New York kept slaves and were in favor of the institution, others there – Quakers among them – were not. It was written into law that as of 1827, all “enslaved persons born before 1799” were to be immediately emancipated and those born after that year were
to be “gradually emancipated.”

Dr. Murphy points out in conversation that, unlike in the South, where slavery was essential to the livelihoods of its citizens, in the North it was a matter of personal “need.” This distinction set up much greater flexibility of legal and moral response to the institution of slavery than in the South.

Belle grew up a slave and, when older, was married to another slave of her owner’s choosing; they had five children together. When Belle was told by her owner she would be freed a year early in return for conscientious service, she took him at his word. When he reneged, she literally walked away from his home with her infant daughter, Sophia. Fortunately, she came upon a passerby who readily directed her to the home of people who would help her. When John Dumont, her owner at that time, came for her, they bought and then freed her.

As Dr. Murphy depicts his subject – she took the name Sojourner Truth at the age of 46 – she had this effect on many. She was physically imposing at nearly 6 feet tall. Mentally too: Sojourner Truth learned English as a second language and did not write, but others took down her words. She accomplished some  astonishing things; for example, when one of her sons, still a slave, was taken by the family he served to the Deep South – against which New York had laws – she found a lawyer who took her case – and won. Her son was returned to New York. Sojourner Truth took this occasion, Dr. Murphy relates, to be a sign and became a Christian. With the help of yet another friend, she found a job in New York City; she took Peter, the son returned to her, with her.

That a black, female former slave should take on and win in court a case against a white professional male was a precedent of near-miraculous proportions, and yet that seems characteristic of Sojourner Truth. Dr. Murphy says that she had a “zero-based approach to life. She was not nurtured in the intellectual paradigm of her day [and] she could see from her own base. She was able to make her case so people had to respect the substance of what she said.”

This seems to have been true. Sojourner Truth met people along her way and made them her friends and supporters; she knew Susan B. Anthony, met with Abraham Lincoln, and Frederick Douglass was “her friend but philosophical opponent.” She spoke against slavery and for the right of women to vote. And people listened to her.  

Dr. Murphy employs numerous sources, including three editions of “Narrative of Sojourner Truth.” “Narrative of Sojourner Truth, A Northern Slave” was published in 1850 by Olive Gilbert, “to whom Truth dictated her life story up to that point in time.” Frances Titus was “Truth’s trusted friend and traveling companion in her later years,” and added material from after the earlier book’s publication.

Margaret Washington’s 1993 book adds a historical perspective. Dr. Murphy includes in his book a “core bibliography,” an impressive section of suggestions for further reading and sections that provide Internet sources, original (1800s) newspaper and journal articles and the research collections in the Willard Library in Battle Creek, Mich., and in Northwestern University’s Periodicals Room here in Evanston.

The index is comprehensive and helpful, as are the endnotes to each chapter. The timeline at the beginning of the book is especially helpful; the text itself does not always provide dates, so it is useful to have this chronology of Sojourner Truth’s life to refer to. Photographs scattered throughout the book are striking.

“Sojourner Truth: A Biography” is an engaging, intensive introduction to a fascinating individual and her time.

The Writer

Larry Murphy was born on Nov. 7, 1946, in Detroit, Mich. His father, Alfonso W. Murphy, was a welder at Chrysler; his mother, Mary Elner, was a nurse at Wayne County General Hospital before becoming a homemaker. Mr. Murphy is the second to youngest of seven children, most of whom still live in Michigan. They were, and still are, a close family, Dr. Murphy says.

When he was 9, the family moved to Westland, Mich., where Dr. Murphy attended Inkster High School and met his wife-to-be, Jean. He went to college at Michigan State in East Lansing, where he studied medical technology. In his third year, Dr. Murphy switched to religion, his real interest all along. “By the time I made the switch,” he says, “my parents were all right with it.” They had, he says, been concerned that he be able to support himself and ultimately a family.

But Dr. Murphy was drawn to the ministry early on, he says. “My family had always been deeply invested in the church.” His father’s father was an AME church minister; his mother’s family was active in the Baptist church.

“It was part of your identity growing up. You grow with the faith. …” committed to the values taught in the church. “[Receiving my calling] didn’t happen all at once.” While there was no particular moment when he felt he knew what he would do, Dr. Murphy says, he recalls one Sunday morning, when “he was standing at the back of the church, looking out across the sanctuary. A feeling came over [me] that I should be at the front.”

A week after Larry and Jean Murphy married in 1967, they left for Berkeley, Cal., where Larry was to attend the Pacific School of Religion and then the Graduate Theological Union, and Jean the University of California at Berkeley to study social welfare. They lived there for seven years, studying as they had intended, but also much more.

It was a time of great civil unrest and campus protest, and, says Dr. Murphy, “We were part of those activities in those days. It was a very pregnant time, a time of great ferment.” He served as youth minister in Oakland, and among his acquaintance were members of the Black Panther party, including Huey Newton and Bobby Seal. 

“I was drawn in willingly. Stepping in was personally formative for me,” says Dr. Murphy. “I was a student at Pacific School in religion. The students there, along with those at other seminaries, took part in student protest, occupying institutions, bringing them to account about making changes, including hiring practices and curriculum, so that education would be relevant to others than Euro-Americans, having diversity beyond whiteness. …” It was, in fact, Dr. Murphy who was “charged with crafting the actual demands” they made of the board of trustees.

So important a formative influence on the couple was the time they spent in Berkeley that Dr. Murphy says, “My wife and I grew up in California. We learned what it means to be a responsible adult … in an interracial, interactive context.” 

There also, Dr. Murphy was part of the group that established the innovative Center for Urban Black Studies. This was important enough to him to be one of the factors that made him reluctant to return to the Midwest when looking for jobs. But, he says, when he came to Garrett in Evanston in 1974, he found CBE – The Center for the Church and the Black Experience – here already. Garrett was, to his pleased surprise, “on the cutting edge. [Garrett] admitted black students,” and was working on curriculum and hiring. “Under the late Bishop Ammons,” Dr. Murphy says, “students had challenged the institution” and had been effectual.

Larry Murphy has been teaching at Garrett ever since. Of his “vocation as a teacher” that appears on his Garrett website faculty page, he says, “I try to point students to the story behind the story, to the complex, multi-layered dynamics of human interaction in community. I want them to see the figures of history as real people wrestling with issues of life and love, identity, security, and destiny. …”

Dr. Murphy has also worked in the community: Last summer, he says, he spent working with Jan Schakowsky’s office to get the “much-contested health-care bill” passed. His wife, Jean Murphy, teaches at Chicago State University in the Department of Education. Their son, Ayinde, a student, was born in Evanston, lives here, too.  

Evanston, Dr. Murphy says, “is an excellent place. I had reservations about leaving California and coming to Illinois because” – he laughs – “California is paradise – physically, socially… and also it is the freest. I was hesitant about coming back to the more conservative and constricting environment of the Midwest. But I’ve found Evanston and Illinois do not fall short. Evanston is committed to being accepting of diversity and being more inclusive, though it has its own terrible history. I [remember having seen] signs on houses: ‘This house may not be sold to a black or a Jew.’ Owing to Northwestern University, all kinds of cultural and social outlets and opportunities are available. Evanston is a great place to live and work.” Dr. Murphy adds, “And Garrett’s focus on African Americans is supportive, as is Evanston.”

Some of Dr. Murphy’s other publications are “Down by the Riverside: Readings in African American Religion,” which he edited; “African-American Faith in America” (New York: Facts on File. 2003), written by him; and the chapter “Piety and Liberation: An Historical Exploration of African American Religion and Social Justice,” in Iva E. Carruthers, et.al., eds., “Blow the Trumpet in Zion: Global Vision and Action for the 21st-Century Black Church” (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005).