Women in History—Sojourner Truth
A Slave is Born
Like so many children born into slavery, there is no recorded birthday for Isabella Baumfree (who would later change her name to Sojourner Truth), of Swartekill, New York, historians have estimated it to be around 1797.
Her father —a slave, captured in Ghana, her mother—the daughter of slaves from Guinea. The Baumfree family was owned by Colonel Johannes Hardenbergh and lived north of New York City on the Colonel's estate. Since the area had been under Dutch rule, both the Baumfrees and the Hardenberghs spoke Dutch instead of English.
When the Colonel passed away, ownership of the Baumfrees transferred to his son Charles, in 1806. Nine-year-old Isabella went to auction, along with a flock of sheep. Isabella and the sheep sold for a mere $100. Her new owner, a violent man, named John Neely. Over the next two years, she was sold two more times before finally residing at the estate of John Dumont in West Park, New York. Truth learned to speak English during these years.
Wife and Mother
Sometime during 1815, Truth met and fell in love with a slave from a nearby farm. Robert and Sojourner had a daughter, Diana, but Robert's owner forbade the two from being together. The couple separated and never saw each other again. With Sojourner watching from a window, Robert's owner, Catlin beat him nearly to death, after he angered his owner for having a child.1 Diana and any other children the couple may have had would not be his property. Instead, they would belong to John Dumont.
In 1817, Dumont forced Truth into a marriage with a man named Thomas, an older slave also owned by Dumont. Thomas and Sojourner had a son, Peter, as well as two daughters, Sophia and Elizabeth.
New York began negotiations to abolish slavery in 1799 and on July 4th, 1827, all slaves in the state were emancipated. When Dumont went back on his word to free Truth in 1826, she and her infant daughter, Sophia, escaped their slavery. Peter and Elizabeth stayed behind.
Not long after making her escape, her son Peter, who was only five years old at the time, was sold illegally to a man in Alabama. Sojourner became one of the first black women to challenge a white man, successfully, in a U.S. court.
Controversy and Hardship
Sojourner's freedom from slavery was not free from controversy and hardships. Upon her conversion to Christianity, Truth and her son Peter, moved to New York City. In 1892, she worked for Evangelist Elijah Pierson as a housekeeper, before moving on to work as a domestic maid for Robert Matthews. Matthews, who was known as Prophet Matthias, had a reputation for being a con man and cult leader.
After Truth had changed positions, Pierson died. Matthews found himself accused of poisoning Pierson. The Folgers, a couple who belonged to Pierson's cult, tried to tie Truth to the crime. After Matthews was acquitted, Truth filed a slander lawsuit against the Folgers and won.
One of the most difficult hardships she had to face - the loss of her son. When Truth rescued Peter from slavery, he stayed with her until 1839. Then he left to work on a whaling ship. Truth received a total of three letters from her son between 1840-1841. In 1842, the ship returned to port without Peter. She never heard from him again.
Abolitionism and Women's Rights
Isabella Baumfree officially changed her name to Sojourner Truth, on June 1st, 1843. She devoted her life to Methodism and abolishing slavery.
Joining the Northampton Association of Education and Industry in 1844, she became part of an organization which supported a wide agenda of reform, including women's rights and pacifism. Members of the club lived on a 500 acre, self-sustaining compound. It was there Truth met several leading abolitionists who included William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and David Ruggles.
The community disbanded in 1846 but Sojourner's career as an activist and reformer had only just begun. In 1850 she published her memoir, "The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave." Truth was illiterate and dictated her memories to Olive Gilbert, a trusted friend. Fellow abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison wrote the preface for her.
During the same year, Truth spoke at the very first National Women's Rights Convention.2 Not long after she started touring with George Thompson, where she would speak to the crowds about topics including slavery and human rights.
Standing beside the likes of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, she was one of several former slaves who managed to escape and rise as an abolitionist leader, serving as proof of the humanity of enslaved people.
The Birth of a Speech
Truth spoke at the Ohio Women's Rights Convention2, a speech that would never be forgotten - "Ain't I a Woman?" (You can find the full text in the link below.)
Marius Robinson, editor of The Anti-Slavery Bugle, an Ohio-based newspaper attended the convention and recorded Truth's words personally. Nowhere in her original speech did the phrase "Ain't I a Woman?" appear. The now famous words appeared in print some twelve years later. It was a Southernized version of Truth's speech. With her first language being Dutch, it is highly doubtful she would have used the Southern idiom.
Between 1851 and 1853, Truth worked alongside Robinson to further push the antislavery movement in Ohio. With her emerging reputation, the abolition movement picked up speed. A few of Truth's beliefs considered radical even among other abolitionists.
Seeking political equality for all women, she frequently chastised the community for not fighting for the civil rights of black women as well as men. Afraid the movement would fade away if they achieved victories for black men, she knew both white and black women would not have suffrage and political rights.
Sojourner and the Civil War
The Civil War was a test of Truth's reputation. While attempting to recruit black soldiers for the Union Army, she pushed her own grandson, James Caldwell, to join the 54th Massachusetts Regiment. In 1864, Sojourner was summoned to Washington, D.C., to contribute to the National Freedman's Relief. There, Truth met and spoke with then president, Abraham Lincoln.
Holding firmly onto her wider range of reform ideals, Truth continued her push for change, even after the Emancipation Proclamation.
During 1865, Truth tried to force desegregation of Washington's streetcars by riding in white's only cars.
One of the major projects Truth focused on in her later years was a movement for former slaves to secure land grants from the federal government. Her argument that owning private property, especially parcels of land, would provide African-Americans with the opportunity of self-sufficiency. Thereby, freeing them from the indentured servitude to wealthy, white, landowners. It fell on deaf ears. After pursuing the goal for a long time, she had not been able to convince Congress.
The Death and Legacy of a Legend
On November 26th, 1883, Sojourner Truth died at her home in Battle Creek Michigan. She was laid to rest alongside her family.
Truth's passion for women's rights, universal suffrage, and prison reform continued well into old age. A little-known fact, Sojourner, was also an active proponent in the fight against capital punishment and testified in the Michigan state legislature against the practice.
Truth, who had always been controversial in her ideologies, was widely accepted and heralded by the community as a whole. She maintained close friendships with the other reformers of her time.
Remembering an American Heroine
Truth will always be remembered as one of the most well-known leaders of the abolitionist movement and an early women's rights advocate. Abolition being only one of the few causes Truth was able to see come to fruition during her lifetime. The one fear Sojourner held onto until her death, the falter of abolitionism before gaining equality for women seemed to be prophetic.
It would be nearly four decades after her death that the ratification of the Constitutional Amendment that barred suffrage discrimination was put into place.
A Monument is Designed
Internationally renowned sculptor, Tina Allen, designed a 12-feet-high sculpture. In 1999, the Sojourner Truth Institute dedicated the monument in Truth's honor.
Questions & Answers
© 2017 Sherrie Weynand