Her Early Life:
Sojourner Truth (born Isabella Baumfree) historians estimate was born around 1797 in Swartekill, in Ulster County, New York. Truth’s birthdate is not known because children born into slavery never had their births recorded.
She was one of 12 children born to James and Elizabeth Baumfree. Her father was a slave captured in modern day Ghana and her mother was the daughter of slaves from Guinea. The entire Baumfree family was owned by Colonel Hardenbergh, and lived on his estate in Esopus, New York. Because that area was once under Dutch control the Baumfree family spoke Dutch.
After the Colonel’s death, the Baumfree’s were passed on to his son Charles. Bearing in mind that these are people we are talking about. Treated as property because after the death of Charles, the Baumfree’s were split up. That was in 1806. 9-year-old Sojourner was sold at an auction with a flock of sheep for $100. Truth remembered her new owner, John Neely as harsh and violent.
Over the following 2 years Truth would be sold twice more, finally becoming the property of John Dumont at West Park, New York. It was during these years that Truth learned to speak English for the first time.
Around 1815, Truth fell in love with a slave named Robert from a neighboring farm. They had a daughter Diana, but Robert’s owner was against the relationship because any children born would then become the property of his neighbor. There was wealth in slave ownership. The two never saw each other again.
In 1817, John Dumont forced Truth to marry an older slave named Thomas. They had a son and 2 daughters.
The Road To Freedom:
The state of New York had begun to negotiate the abolition of slavery in 1799, emancipated all slaves on July 4th, 1872. John Dumont reneged on his promise to emancipate Truth in 1826 so she escaped to freedom with her infant daughter. The other children stayed behind.
Shortly after her escape, Truth learned that her 5-year-old son had been illegally sold to a man in Alabama. She went to court and secured her son’s return from the South. This was one of the first cases where a black woman successfully challenged a white man in court.
Truth’s road to freedom was marked by hardships. She converted to Christianity and moved with her son to work as a housekeeper for Christian evangelist Elijah Pierson. She moved onto another house working for John Matthews also known as Prophet Matthias. Shortly after she changed house Elijah Pierson died. Robert Matthews was accused of poisoning him to gain access to his wealth. A couple who were followers of Robert Matthews attempted to implicate Sojourner Truth in the crime.
Lack of evidence saw Matthews being acquitted and he moved away and Truth brought a slander suit against the couple who tried to implicate her and won.
On June 1st, 1843, Isabella Baumfree changed her name to Sojourner Truth and devoted her life to the abolition of slavery.
In 1844, Truth joined the Northampton Association of Education and Industry in Northampton, Massachusetts. The organization supported a broad reform agenda including women’s rights. Although the organization disbanded in 1846, Truth’s career as an activist and reformer was just beginning.
Spreading The Truth:
In 1850, Truth spoke at the first National Women’s Rights Convention in Worcester. She soon began touring regularly with abolitionist George Thompson, speaking to large crowds about slavery and human rights.
As Truth’s reputation grew and the abolition movement gained momentum, she drew increasingly larger crowds. She was one of several escaped slaves, along with Douglass and Harriet Tubman, to rise to prominence as an abolitionist leader and a testament to the humanity of enslaved people.
Truth’s memoirs were published under the title The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave in 1850. Since she could not read or write she dictated her recollections to her friend Oliver Gilbert.
In 1864, Truth was called to Washington, D.C., to contribute to the National Freedman’s Relief Association. On at least one occasion, Truth met and spoke with President Abraham Lincoln about her beliefs and experiences.
Truth continued to agitate for change even after Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation. In 1865, Truth attempted to force the desegregation of street cars in Washington by riding in cars designated for whites.
A major project of Truth’s later life was the movement to secure land grants from the federal government for former slaves. She argued that ownership of private property, and particularly land, would give African Americans self-sufficiency and free them from a kind of indentured servitude to wealthy white landowners.
Although Truth pursued this goal forcefully for many years, she was unable to sway Congress.
Until old age intervened, Truth continued to speak passionately on the subject of women’s rights. Truth was embraced by a community of reformers which included Susan B. Anthony from the Suffrage Movement.
In death Truth is remembered as one of the foremost leaders of the abolition movement and its early advocate of women’s rights. Abolition was one of the few causes Sojourner Truth was able to see realized in her lifetime. The 19th Amendment, which enabled women to vote, was not ratified until 1920, nearly 4 decades after Truth’s death. She died at her home in Battle Creek, Michigan, on November 26th, 1883.
“‘Ain’t I a Woman?” Speech:
In May 1851, Truth delivered an improvised speech at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akron. Her famous “Ain’t I a woman?” speech was not included by the Ohio newspaper, The Anti-Slavery Bugle, even though editor Marius Robinson attended the convention and recorded Truth’s words himself.
Ain’t I a woman Summary: “That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me!”
“Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ‘ cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.”
“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! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.” Unquote.
The struggles of black women the world over continues to present day.
“Truth is powerful and it prevails:”
- Sojourner Truth
Excerpt from Sojourner Truth Biography at: The Biography.com website