As I was compiling a list of important activists for Black History Month, I came across information about Sojourner Truth. I noticed how tremendous Sojourner Truth’s civil rights work was and how her interests intersected with those of noted feminists of her day. On that note, this post will serve as a segway to March, which is Women’s History Month.
But what struck me even more were three things:
First, Truth was truly guided by her faith and many of her speaking engagements were rooting in her belief in God.
Second, Truth’s causes were varied. Truth’s Causes included:
- Equality among the sexes, yet she feared the abolitionist movement would end with the freedom of slaves and extending rights to black men.
- The goal for blacks to own property in order to become self-sufficient and experience greater freedom.
- Prison reform. And she stood against capital punishment.
Third, Truth was so successful as a speaker because of her intangible qualities, including her self-confidence.
By the time Truth died in Battle Creek, Michigan, in 1883, she was a beloved figure.
Sojourner Truth was born Isabella Baumfree in Swartekill, Ulster County, New York circa 1797. In The Narrative of Sojourner Truth, it is stated that she was born between 1797 and 1800, but by most accounts, the former year was the most agree upon. Her exact birthdate isn’t known since she was born in slavery.
Her parents were named James and Elizabeth. James was brought to the United States from Ghana and forced into slavery. Elizabeth, also known as Mau-Mau Bet, was the daughter of slaves captured in Guinea.
Isabella Baumfree may have been one of as many as 12 children. (As outlined in her memoirs, the exact number of people living in the same quarters wasn’t entirely clear.)
When Isabella was still very young, the man who owned her and her family, Colonel Hardenbergh, died and ownership of the slaves was transferred to his son, Charles. He would die in 1806; soon after, the Baumfree family would be split up.
When Isabella Baumfree was about 9 years old, she was auctioned off to John Neely for $100 and flock of sheep. Neely was a cruel master, but he would later sell her off.
She would be sold off once more before residing on the property of one John Dumont at West Park, New York. The Baumfrees originally spoke Dutch, since the area in New York where they lived was originally controlled by the Dutch. But whilst she was on Dumont’s property, Isabella Baumfree would be forced to speak English for the first time (Biography).
Baumfree was abused by John Dumon and his wife, Sally. Baumfree was beaten by John Dumont and there were evidence that she had been sexually abused by Sally (“This Far by Faith”).
Marriage and Escape
Truth bore at least five children while on the Dumont farm. The first was a daughter named Diana; she was produced by Truth’s relationship with a slave from a neighboring farm named Robert, whom Truth met in 1815. In 1817, John Dumont forced Truth to marry an older slave named Thomas. That marriage produced a son named Peter and at least two daughters, named Elizabeth and Sophia.
All slaves were emancipated in New York on July 4, 1827; negotiations to end slavery in the state began in 1899. However, Truth had already escaped Dumont’s farm in late 1826 with her infant daughter, Sophia. Dumont had reneged on a promise to free Truth.
Baumfree found herself among Quakers who took her in. While she was with the Van Wagenens Baumfree learned that her son, Peter, was illegally sold away. She acquired money for legal fees and filed a complaint with the Ulster County Grand Jury. Peter was returned to his mother in 1828.
The case would be the first of three Truth would fight and win. Sojourner Truth won three lawsuits. One involved a personal injury case after she suffered an injury in a street car incident in Washington, D.C.
Truth’s Faith and Inspiration
Baumfree long believed and God and spoke to him as if in a conversation. While on the Dumont farm, she spoke to God in her temple made of bush. After she had escaped the Dumont farm, she credited a vision from God with helping her fight the temptation to go back there.
Baumfree changed her name to Sojourner Truth on June 1, 1843. She said she had a vision from God telling her to talk to a multitude of people.
Sojourner Truth’s faith guided her principles of nonviolence. Frederick Douglass — whom Truth met when she lived among abolitionists in Northampton, Massachusetts —often patronized Truth, calling her “uncultured.” One day in 1852, Douglass spoke at a meeting in Ohio. Douglass, himself a freed slave, said that blacks would need to seize freedom by force is necessary. In response, Truth asked Douglass, “Is God gone?” a refrain that was later romanticized by writers like Harriet Beecher Stowe (“This Far by Faith”).
Truth was guided by her faith. But her experiences and the friends she met would pull her into a lifelong mission as an activist.
Civil Rights Activism
In 1844, Truth joined the Northampton Association of Education and Industry in Northampton, Massachusetts. The organization was founded by abolitionists and its broad agenda included women’s rights and pacifism. The members of the organization lived together on a 500-acre area and formed a self-sufficient community.
The community disbanded in 1846. While Truth was a member, the organization also put her in touch with leading abolitionists of the day, including Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, and David Ruggles.
Some of the friends Truth made where help her share her memoirs. The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: a Northern Slave was published in 1850. The book contained Truth’s history, dictated by her (because she couldn’t read or write) and written by her friend Olive Gilbert. William Lloyd Garrison wrote the preface for the book.
Also in 1850, she began touring regularly with fellow abolitionist George Thomson. The two addressed large crowds, speaking on the subjects of slavery and human rights.
Truth toured the state of Ohio from 1851-1853, during which she continued to work closely with Robinson. Her reputation grew from there.
During the Civil War, Truth helped to recruit black men to fight for the Union. Among the men she recruited was her grandson, James Caldwell, who enlisted in the Union Army’s 54th Massachusetts Regiment. Truth also worked to procure food and clothing for the soldiers.
In 1864, Truth contributed to the National Freedman’s Relief Association in Washington, D.C. While there, Truth met with President Abraham Lincoln on one or two occasions (Biography).
After the Civil War, thousands of freedmen and former slaves rushed to Washington D.C. in search of safety and jobs, but the nation’s capital was unprepared for them. Truth worked at Freedman’s Village and Freedman’s Bureau to improve the conditions for the people there. When Truth learned that Maryland residents would come to the village to steal children — and parents were punished if they protested — she also crusaded to help parents at Freeman’s Village protest against the kidnappings that occurred there. Truth also helped to relocate residents to western states (Butler).
Sojourner Truth’s work put her into contact with leading women’s rights activists of the day. She spoke at some conferences, including the first National Women’s rights Convention in Worcester, Massachusetts and the 1851 Women’s Rights Conference in Akron, Ohio. In Ohio, she made her “Ain’t I a Woman” speech, for which she is best known.
Eventually, Truth broke with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who she had befriended, due to Stanton’s rhetoric. At one point, Stanton threatened to no support the right to vote for black men if women were denied the right to vote. In fact, much of the rhetoric around the suffrage grew to become incredibly racist (“This Far by Faith”).
Again, Truth wanted women to gain the right to vote. But as a civil rights activist, she also wanted black men to gain their full rights, too.
Sojourner Truth’s Mastery
Sourjouner Truth’s strength was in her ability to control a crowd with her words and her voice. Although illiterate, she was helped by other now and then, but she had the charisma.
At SojournerTruth.org, Thea Rozetta Lapham recounted a story from The Narrative of Sojourner Truth. One day, when she was at Northhampton, a mob of young men with clubs threatened to disturb the revival Truth was attending. At first, Truth hid in the tent with the rest of the attendees, but she refused to be afraid.
Truth exited the tent and stood on a mound of earth in front of the mob. She began singing, but the men approached her. She kept singing until one of the men asked her to keep singing and then tell them her story.
Truth managed to calm down the mob and they eventually left peacefully.
In the May 2, 1863 edition of the Anti-Slavery Standard, France Dana Gage recounted the story of Sojourner Truth speaking at the 1851 Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio. Truth was scheduled to speak and attendees at the conference felt that letting her speak would effectively kill the causes of abolition and women’s rights. But when Truth stood up and spoke with authority, she countered points made by the male speakers and won over the crowd.
In response to the claim that women had inferior intellect, Truth said:
What’s that got to do with women’s rights or negroes’ rights? If my cup won’t hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn’t you be mean not to let me have my little half measure full?
One man at the conference said because Jesus was a man, that meant women were inferior. To that, Truth said:
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 your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.
She added this quip about (Adam and) Eve:
If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.
It’s easy to see how she exited the women in the crowd.
When I set out to do this report, I did so in earnest. But the more I read, the more inspired I was by the story of Sojourner Truth. She was brave, bold, and determined. Guided by her faith and principles, she traveled the country in order to help others, even at an advanced age.
This last two days, I have looked at some awesome ladies. I will have the chance to do some more of that next month, as I will include some stories in honor of Women’s History Month.
“Ain’t I a Woman?” SojournerTruth.org. Web. Retrieved 28 Feb 2017. <http://www.sojournertruth.org/Library/Speeches/AintIAWoman.htm#notes>.
Biography.com Editors. “Sojourner Truth Biography.” Biography.com. A&E Television Networks. Last Updated 5 Jan 2017. Web. Retrieved 6 Feb 2017. <http://www.biography.com/people/sojourner-truth-9511284>.
Butler, Mary G. “Sojourner Truth: A Life and Legacy of Faith.” SojournerTruth.org. Web. Retrieved 6 Feb 2017. <http://www.sojournertruth.org/Library/Archive/LegacyOfFaith.htm>.
The Faith Project, Inc. “This Far by Faith. Sojourner Truth.” PBS. 2003. Web. Retrieved 6 Feb 2017. <http://www.pbs.org/thisfarbyfaith/people/sojourner_truth.html>.
Lapham, Thea Rozetta. “Calming an Angry Mob.” SojournerTruth.org. Web. Retrieved 28 Feb 2017. <http://www.sojournertruth.org/Library/Archive/CalmingMob.htm>.
U.S. Department of the Interior. “Sojourner Truth.” National Park Service. Web. Retrieved 28 Feb 2017. Web. <https://www.nps.gov/wori/learn/historyculture/sojourner-truth.htm>.