Sojourner Truth was an
African American evangelist abolitionist, women's rights campaigner, and author
who was born into slavery and escaped to freedom in 1826. Truth preached
abolitionism and equal rights for all after attaining her freedom. She became
famous for delivering a speech at a women's conference in Ohio in 1851 that
included the famous refrain "Ain't I a Woman?" Historians have
questioned the accuracy of the speech (and if Truth ever uttered that chant).
Truth continued her crusade into adulthood, winning an audience with President Abraham
Lincoln and becoming one of the most well-known human rights activists in the
Early Years of Sojourner Truth
Truth was born Isabella Baumfree in 1797 in Ulster County, New York, to
enslaved parents James and Elizabeth Baumfree. She was sold for $100 at an
auction when she was nine years old, together with a flock of sheep, to John
was a rude and brutal master who often abused the young girl. By the age of 13,
she had been sold twice more and ended up in the West Park, New York, house of
John Dumont and his second wife Elizabeth.
fell in love with an enslaved man named Robert from a nearby farm when she was
about 18 years old. However, because they had separate owners, the pair were not
permitted to marry.
Isabella was compelled to marry Thomas, another enslaved man owned by Dumont.
She had five children in total: James, Diana, Peter, Elizabeth, and Sophia.
From Slavery to Freedom on Foot
York began enacting emancipation legislation at the turn of the century, but it
would take another two decades for all enslaved individuals in the state to be
Dumont promised Isabella that on July 4, 1826, he would liberate her “if she
would do well and be faithful.” However, when the date arrived, he changed his mind
and refused to let her go.
enraged, fulfilled her due to Dumont and then left his clutches with her young
daughter in tow. “I did not rush away, since I believed that was wicked,” she
later explained, “but I walked away, believing it was all right.”
had to make the difficult decision to leave her other children behind because
they were still legally bonded to Dumont.
found her way to New Paltz, New York, where Isaac and Maria Van Wagenen took
her and her daughter in as free people. When Dumont arrived to reclaim his
"property," the Van Wagenens offered to buy Isabella's services from
him for $20 until the New York Anti-Slavery Law went into effect in 1827,
emancipating all enslaved individuals; Dumont accepted.
Sojourner Truth, First Black Woman to Sue White Man and Win
unlawfully sold Isabella's five-year-old son Peter after the New York
Anti-Slavery Law was approved. She initiated a lawsuit to reclaim him with the
support of the Van Wagenens.
won her case and regained custody of her son months later. She was the first
Black woman to successfully sue a white man in a US court.
Spiritual Calling of Sojourner Truth
spirituality was profoundly influenced by the Van Wagenens, and she became a
devout Christian. She and Peter came to New York City in 1829 to work as a
housekeeper for Elijah Pierson, an evangelist speaker.
years later, she left Pierson to work for another preacher, Robert Matthews.
Isabella and Matthews were suspected of poisoning and theft after Elijah
Pierson died, but they were acquitted.
devoutness to Christianity and desire to preach and win converts grew stronger
as she lived among believers. In 1843, she changed her identity to Sojourner
Truth and began on a trip to preach the gospel and speak out against slavery
and tyranny, believing it was her religious mission to do so.
not a woman? Controversy and Speech
joined the Northampton Association of Education and Industry, a Massachusetts
abolitionist organization, in 1844, where she met notable abolitionists like
Frederick Douglass and essentially established her career as an equal rights
made a passionate speech about equal rights for Black women at the Ohio Women's
Rights Convention in 1851. Frances Gage, a white abolitionist and the
Convention's president published an account of Truth's words in the National
Anti-Slavery Standard twelve years later. Truth used the rhetorical question,
"Aren't I a Woman?" in her account, according to Gage. ” in order to
draw attention to the discrimination Truth faced as a Black woman.
elements in Gage's tale, such as the fact that Truth claimed to have 13
children (when she really had five) and spoke in a dialect, have since put
doubt on its accuracy. The slogan was not included in contemporaneous reporting
of Truth's speech, and Truth was cited in conventional English. This phrase was
eventually altered to "Ain't I a Woman?" to represent the incorrect
idea that Truth would have had a Southern accent as a formerly enslaved woman.
Truth was a proud New Yorker, to be sure.
audiences were captivated by Truth's speech—and many more she delivered
throughout her adult life. "I have plowed and reaped and husked and cut
and mowed, and can any man do more than that?" she said in another version
of Truth's 1851 address, which appeared in a newspaper a month later.
eloquent language drew the attention of notable women's rights campaigners of
the day, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.
Truth During the Civil War,
the Civil War, Truth, like another famous escaped enslaved woman, Harriet
Tubman assisted in the recruitment of Black soldiers. She worked for the
National Freedman's Relief Association in Washington, D.C., where she organized
individuals to donate food, clothing, and other goods to Black refugees.
Abraham Lincoln saw her abolitionist work and called her to the White House in
October 1864, when she was shown a Bible brought to him by African Americans in
in Washington, Truth demonstrated her bravery and scorn for segregation by
riding on whites-only streetcars. When the Civil War ended, she worked
tirelessly to locate opportunities for newly freed Black Americans who were impoverished.
she tried unsuccessfully to have formerly enslaved people resettled on
government land in the West. Quotes by Sojourner Truth
the first woman God ever created was strong enough to turn the world upside
down by herself, these women should be able to turn it right side up again! And
now that they've asked to do it, the males should give it to them.”
there's that little man in black over there, who claims that women don't have
the same rights as males because Christ wasn't a woman! What is the origin of
your Christ? What was the origin of Christ? It's a gift from God and a lady! He
didn't have anything to do with man.” And what is that faith that sanctioned
all that is adopted in the 'Peculiar Institution' even by its silence? If there
is anything more radically opposed to Jesus' religion than the operation of
this soul-killing system - which is as thoroughly sanctioned by America's
religion as her ministers and churches - we would want to be told where it
might be found.”
if you want me to leave the earth, you'd better persuade the women to vote as
quickly as possible. I'm not leaving until I've accomplished that.”
Years of Sojourner Truth
relocated to Battle Creek, Michigan, in 1867, to be near her daughters. She
continued to advocate for women's suffrage and spoke out against prejudice. She
was particularly worried that some civil rights activists, such as Frederick
Douglass believed that equal rights for Black men were more important than
equal rights for Black women.
November 26, 1883, Truth died at home. Her death certificate says she died at
the age of 86, while her memorial tombstone says she died at the age of 105.
The words "Is God Dead?" are engraved on her tombstone, a question
she allegedly asked a dejected Frederick Douglass to remind him to have faith.
created a legacy of courage, faith, and fighting for what is right and decent,
but she also left a legacy of words and music, including her autobiography, The
Narrative of Sojourner Truth, which she dictated to Olive Gilbert in 1850
because she could not read or write.
Christian life and battle for equality are perhaps best summarized by her own
words from 1863: "Children, who made your complexion white?" Wasn't
it God who did it? Who gave me the color black? Isn't this the same God? So,
because my skin is black, am I to blame? Isn't God just as fond of colored
children as he is of white ones? Isn't it true that the same Savior died to
save each of them?”