Isabelle Baumfree or better known as Sojourner Truth was born into slavery to James and Elene Baumfree in 1979. The Baumfree family was owned by Colonel Hardenbergh and after him by Charles Hardenbergh.
The Baumfree family got separated after Charles died and little Truth or “Belle” as she was called that time was sold with a flock of sheep for $100. Her new owner was John Neely who was harsh and violent towards Isabelle.
Truth was sold two more times after she finally came to the property of John Dumont in New York where she actually learnt how to speak English.
Marriage of Sojourner Truth
Around 1815, Truth came into a relationship with a man named Robert but they soon had to break off because Robert’s owner Charles Catalion wouldn’t permit them to be together. They still met each other but Catalion caught Robert and severely beat him up following which he died of the injuries.
Truth was then forced to marry Thomas, another slave of Dumont who was 20 years older than Truth. Truth had five children out of which four were with Thomas and one was with either Robert or Dumont.
Freedom from Slavery
In 1817 New York passed a law to release all the slaves born before July 1799 but they were not to be released before 4th July 1827. Truth sensed the mala fide intentions of Dumont of not letting her go and thus ran away with her youngest daughter.
She found refuge with Maria and Issac Van Wagenen who offered to buy her from Dumont thus freeing her from slavery. Shortly after her escape Truth came to know that Dumont had sold her son to a man in Alabama. She took him to court with the help of the Van Wagenen’s and won becoming the first Black woman to take a White man to Court and have won.
Truth converted to Christianity and started to work in the house of Elijah Pierson as a housekeeper who claimed to be a prophet. She then moved to the home of Robert Mathews better known as Prophet Matthias, who had formed a cult together with Pierson known as “The Kingdom.”
Elijah Pierson died shortly after Truth changed homes and Prophet Matthias was implicated in his death. The white couple working in the cult accused Truth of poisoning Pierson. She was found innocent by the court after which she took the couple to the court filing a suit of slander against them which she won again becoming a remarkable point in history.
Adopting name Sojourner Truth
On June 1st 1843, Isabelle adopted the name “Sojourner Truth” as she accepted the Methodist religion and became a travelling preacher- as her new name suggests.
She felt a calling to travel around America for the abolition of slavery and in her own words as she would say, “The spirit calls me, and I must go.”
In 1844 she joined the Northampton Association of Education and Industry in Northampton, Massachusetts which was founded for the abolition of slavery, pacifism and women’s rights where she met William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglas and several other prominent abolitionists of that time with whom she remained connected with even after the group got disbanded in 1846.
The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave
She dictated her autobiography to women rights activist Olive Gilbert in 1850 who helped her publish it as she could not read or write. “Oh no, honey, I can’t read little things like letters. I read big things like men,” she would say. The money that she got from selling the autobiography helped her travel around for her speech commitments.
In 1850, Truth gave a speech at the first National Women’s Rights Convention in Worcester, Massachusetts. After this, she soon started travelling with George Thompson delivering speeches on anti-slavery and women’s rights to large crowds where there was the domination of white men on the speaking circuits making a striking impression on the minds of people as her imposing self carried words with authenticity as she was a slave herself.
As her reputation grew and the momentum of the abolitionist movement picked up its pace, her reception became more favourable.
She became popular with the like-minded abolitionists like Douglas and Harriet Tubman. Her ideas about equality for women were radical even for some with progressive minds.
Ain’t I a woman?
In 1851, Truth delivered a speech at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akron that later came to be known as “Ain’t I a Women” and became very famous even though it was reported wrongly by Marius Robinson.
“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! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne five children and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?”
“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 Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.”
These are some bits and pieces from her speech and just reading this once gives one makes one completely agree with her. What effect would the whole speech have on the audience when it came out from her who has such an imposing and charismatic aura!
Later life of Sojourner Truth
In 1856, Truth sold her house in Northampton and moved to Michigan. She began delivering speeches in Michigan also widening the scope of her speeches to prison reforms and capital punishment. Her actions show that she was not a person who was “all talk and no show.”
In Washington, she tried to desegregate the streetcars by riding in white only carriages. She met Abraham Lincoln in 1864 and challenged the discriminatory policy of streetcars on the basis of race. She was also a member of the National Freedman’s Relief Association.
She also carried many petitions urging people to sign them for grant of free land to former slaves. She also testified before the Michigan State Legislature against the practice of Capital Punishment.
During the Civil War, Truth used her position as an abolitionist to help raise food and clothing for the black regiments. She also tried to organize efforts to provide jobs for the black refugees from the war.
After the Civil War, she worked for getting freed slaves their own land for free so that they can support themselves and gain a true sense of dignity. Although Truth worked for many years trying to persuade the Congress for this, the Congress was never swayed by her to take action.
Death-I am not going to die, I’m going home like a shooting star.
“I must sojourn once to the ballot-box before I die. I hear the ballot-box is a beautiful glass globe, so you can see all the votesas they go in. Now, the first time I vote I’ll see if the woman’s vote looks any different from the rest–if it makes any stir or commotion. If it doesn’t inside, it need not outside.”
“Now, if you want me to get out of the world, you had better get the women votin’ soon. I shan’t go till I can do that.”
Truth wanted Women to have equal voting rights as men and she spoke all about it in her speeches. Unfortunately, she wasn’t able to witness it during her life. Equal voting rights were eventually granted to women through the 19th amendment in 1920 which was nearly four decades after Truth’s death in 1883.
Legacy of Sojourner Truth
Truth is remembered as one of the prominent figures in the abolitionist movement and as an early women’s rights activist. In 1981, she was inducted in the National Women’s Hall of Fame and in 1986 a stamp was issued in her honour by the U.S. Postal Service. In 2009, she was honoured with a bust in the U.S. Capitol and she was the first black women to ever have received such an honour.