Sojourner Truth’s extraordinary courage, tireless activism, and faith in truth gave her a powerful voice for anti-slavery and women’s rights movements in the United States. This is her story.
A former slave, Sojourner Truth, was an outspoken advocate for civil and women’s rights in the 19th century.
Her story is that of incredible courage and determination. She was bought and sold several times and was often separated from her loved ones and explicitly prevented from pursuing new relationships.
Her tireless efforts for abolishing slavery, women’s rights, and her role during the civil war have earned her many honors, including an invitation to meet President Abraham Lincoln.
Sojourner Truth’s story
Sojourner, formerly Isabella, was born to slave parents James and Elizabeth Baumfree in 1797 in Dutch-speaking Ulster County, New York.
She was one of 10 to 12 children, most of whom were sold to slavery when Isabella was only an infant. As a young child, Isabella witnessed both her parents’ death — which was caused by severe infection and illness and unforgiving hard labor.
Following her parents’ death, young Isabella (now about nine years old) was auctioned to new owners.
She was first sold to John Neely along with a herd of sheep. John Neely’s family spoke only English, and Isabella’s first language was Dutch. So when there were any miscommunications (which happened often), Isabella was severely punished. An instance from her biography shows the severity of her punishment —
“One Sunday morning, in particular, she was told to go to the barn; on going there, she found her master with a bundle of rods, prepared in the embers, and bound together with cords. When he had tied her hands together before her, he gave her the most cruel whipping she was ever tortured with. He whipped her till the flesh was deeply lacerated, and the blood streamed from her wounds.”
It was during these times Isabella started taking refuge in praying.
Subsequently, she was sold to a tavern owner, and in 1810, she was sold to Mr. Dumont, whom she worked under until her escape in 1827.
Despite all odds, Isabella’s life was driven by the highest sense of honesty, dedication, and faithfulness to her masters. In 1815, her owners married her to a fellow slave, Thomas, and she subsequently gave birth to 5 children.
Isabella’s escape and the start of her new life
New York State had announced the abolition of slavery in 1799.
The emancipation process was slow and gradual and was set to be completed by July 4th, 1827. Isabella’s slavemaster, Mr. Dumont, had promised to provide her with “free papers” in 1826, a year earlier, “if she would do well, and be faithful.”
However, when the time came, he denied her freedom. Although disappointed and furious, Isabella decided to stay with Mr. Dumont until she had finished spinning 100 pounds of wool.
Once she finished her task, she decided to take her freedom into her own hands and managed to escape bondage with her youngest daughter. She later told Mr. Dumont, “No, I did not run away; I walked away by day-light, and all because you had promised me a year of my time.“
After escaping bondage, Isabella took refuge with an abolitionist family, Isaac and Maria Van Wagener. The Van Wageners not only willingly gave Isabella employment but gave her their last name and insisted that she calls them by their given names and not “master” and “mistress.” Such experiences made her feel like the Van Wagerners were “undoubtedly a portion of God’s nobility.”
New York law prohibited the slave of trade out of the state. Isabella soon found out that her 5-year-old son was illegally sold to an enslaver in Alabama. She was determined to get him back. She fought for his custody, knowing that she had no experience in the legal system and no power in the court’s eyes.
Over the next few months, Isabella raised funds, strategized with the lawyers, and held on to her faith. She soon recovered her scarred and severely abused son. Her victory made Isabella the first black woman to sue a white man in the United States court and win it.
Isabella — An activist and a legendary orator
Isabella’s mother’s teachings and life-changing experiences with the Van Wagener inspired her to pursue justice and dedicate her life to religious reflection.
When Isabella moved to New York City, she worked for a local minister. Although she was illiterate, she participated in religious revivals and became a charismatic and electrifying orator. Her speeches drew on biblical references, her experiences with slavery, and her spiritual ideals.
In 1843, she changed her name to Sojourner Truth, announcing that she would travel the land preaching truth and working against injustice. During the next several years, she became involved in the anti-slavery movement.
She went to the mid-west, where she met other famous abolitionists and women’s rights activists and gave speeches about women’s rights and slavery’s evils. She often spoke to hostile audiences, but she was confident that God would protect her.
At a women’s rights conference held in Akron, Ohio, in 1851, Sojourner Truth delivered a powerful and spontaneous speech. This speech, later titled “Ain’t I a Woman?” is the most famous abolitionist and women’s rights speech in American history. It continues to inspire Black activists and women’s rights groups even today.
Sojourner Truth challenged the notion of gender inferiority and spoke about the strength of women.
“if women have a pint and man a quart — why can’t she have her little pint full?You need not be afraid to give us our rights for fear we will take too much, for we cant take more than our pint’ll hold.
And how came Jesus into the world? Through God who created him and woman who bore him. Man, where is your part?”
She continued to speak to thousands of people nationally, but her activism went well beyond public speaking.
She helped slaves escape to freedom, find jobs, and build their new lives. During the Civil War, Truth urged young men to join the Union’s cause and organized supplies for black troops.
For her work and dedication, she was honored with an invitation to the White House to meet President Abraham Lincoln after the war.
Sojourner Truth died in her home in Michigan on November 26th, 1883. Until the end, Sojourner Truth fought for her right to be heard in a hostile world. As she once said,
“I feel safe in the midst of my enemies for the truth… will prevail.”
This article was first published on medium.com on 23 June 2020.