Sojourner Truth was an African American evangelist, abolitionist, women’s rights activist and author who lived a miserable life as a slave, serving several masters throughout New York before escaping to freedom in 1826. After gaining her freedom, Truth became a Christian and, at what she believed was God’s urging, preached about abolitionism and equal rights for all, highlighted in her stirring “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech, delivered at a women’s convention in Ohio in 1851. She continued her crusade for the rest of her life, earning an audience with President Abraham Lincoln and becoming one of the world’s best-known human rights crusaders.
Sojourner Truth’s Early Life
Sojourner Truth was born Isabella Baumfree in 1797 to slave parents in Ulster County, New York. Around age nine, she was sold at a slave auction to John Neely for $100, along with a flock of sheep.
Neely was a cruel and violent slave master who beat the young girl regularly. She was sold two more times by age 13 and ultimately ended up at the West Park, New York, home of John Dumont and his second wife Elizabeth.
Around age 18, Isabella fell in love with a slave named Robert from a nearby farm. But the couple was not allowed to marry since they had separate owners. Instead, Isabella was forced to marry another slave owned by Dumont named Thomas – she eventually bore five children.
Walking from Slavery to Freedom
At the turn of the 19th century, New York started legislating emancipation, but it would take over two decades for liberation to come for all slaves in the state.
In the meantime, Dumont promised Isabella he’d grant her freedom on July 4, 1826, “if she would do well and be faithful.” When the date arrived, however, he had a change of heart and refused to let her go.
Incensed, Isabella completed what she felt was her obligation to Dumont and then escaped his clutches as fast as her six-foot-tall frame could walk away, infant daughter in tow. She later said, “I did not run off, for I thought that wicked, but I walked off, believing that to be all right.”
In what must have been a gut-wrenching choice, she left her other children behind because they were still legally bound to Dumont.
Isabella made her way to New Paltz, New York, where she and her daughter were taken in by Isaac and Maria Van Wagenen. When Dumont came to re-claim his “property,” the Van Wagenen’s offered to buy Isabella’s services from him for $20 until the New York Anti-Slavery Law emancipating all slaves took effect in 1827; Dumont agreed.
Winning her Court Case
After the New York Anti-Slavery Law was passed, Dumont illegally sold Isabella’s five-year-old son Peter. With the help of the Van Wagenen’s, she filed a lawsuit to get him back.
Months later, Isabella won her case and regained custody of her son. She was the first black woman to sue a white man in a United States court and prevail.
The Van Wagenen’s had a profound impact on Isabella’s spirituality and she became a fervent Christian. In 1829, she moved to New York City with Peter to work as a housekeeper for evangelist preacher Elijah Pierson.
She left Pierson three years later to work for another preacher, Robert Matthews. When Elijah Pierson died, Isabella and Matthews were accused of poisoning him and of theft but were eventually acquitted.
Living among people of faith only emboldened Isabella’s devoutness to Christianity and her desire to preach and win converts. In 1843, with what she believed was her religious obligation to go forth and speak the truth, she changed her name to Sojourner Truth and embarked on a journey to preach the gospel and speak out against slavery and oppression.
Ain’t I a Woman?
In 1844, Truth joined a Massachusetts abolitionist organization called the Northampton Association of Education and Industry, where she met leading abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass, and effectively launched her career as an equal rights activist.
In 1851, at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention, Truth spoke out about equal rights for black women. Reporters published different transcripts of the speech where she used the rhetorical question, “Ain’t I A Woman?” to point out the discrimination she experienced as a black woman.
The speech became her most famous, though it was just one of many as she continued to advocate for human rights the rest of her life.
Civil War Years
Like another famous escaped slave, Harriet Tubman, Truth helped recruit black soldiers during the Civil War. She worked in Washington, D.C., for the National Freedman’s Relief Association and rallied people to donate food, clothes and other supplies to black refugees.
Her activism for the abolitionist movement gained the attention of President Abraham Lincoln, who invited her to the White House in October 1864 and showed her a Bible given to him by African Americans in Baltimore.
While Truth was in Washington, she put her courage and disdain for segregation on display by riding on whites-only streetcars. When the Civil War ended, she tried exhaustively to find jobs for freed blacks weighed down with poverty.
Later, she unsuccessfully petitioned the government to resettle freed blacks on government land in the West.
Sojourner Truth’s Later Years
In 1867, Truth moved to Battle Creek, Michigan, where some of her daughters lived. She continued to speak out against discrimination and in favor of woman’s suffrage. She was especially concerned that some civil rights leaders such as Frederick Douglass felt equal rights for black men took precedence over those of black women.
Truth died at home on November 26, 1883. Records show she was age 86 yet her memorial tombstone states she was 105. Engraved on her tombstone are the words, “Is God Dead?,” a question she once asked a despondent Frederick Douglass to remind him to have faith.
Truth left behind a legacy of courage, faith and fighting for what’s right and honorable, but she also left a legacy of words and songs including her autobiography, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth, which she dictated in 1850 to Olive Gilbert since she never learned to read or write.
Perhaps Truth’s life of Christianity and fighting for equality is best summed up by her own words: “Children, who made your skin white? Was it not God? Who made mine black? Was it not the same God? Am I to blame, therefore, because my skin is black? …. Does not God love colored children as well as white children? And did not the same Savior die to save the one as well as the other?”