Sojourner Truth ( c. 1797 – November 26, 1883) was an African American, born into slavery in Esopus, New York, about 96 miles north of New York City. She was one of twelve children. Her parents were owned by Colonel Hardenbergh, an officer in the Continental Army. Hardenbergh or Ardenbergh as sometimes spelled, died when Sojourner was two, and passed her to his son. When the son died in 1806, the little nine year old was sold to one John Neely, along with a herd of sheep.
Sojourner’s birth name was Isabella [Belle] Baumfree, and this is her story – how a little slave girl became recognized as one of the 100 most significant Americans of all time.
Sojourner’s original owners were Dutch, and she grew up speaking that language. When sold to John Neely, he beat her severely for not obeying his orders, spoken in English, which she did not understand. Neely beat her daily, once with a bundle of iron rods, until he sold her in disgust to a tavern keeper for $105. The tavern keeper only owned her for eighteen months before he sold her again to John Dumont of West Park, New York. Dumont at first treated her kindly, but his wife was jealous, and contrived to make Sojourner’s days miserable. Dumont’s wife had reason for her jealousy, as Dumont later raped Sojourner, making her pregnant.
When it became apparent that New York was going to abolish slavery, Dumont promised to free Sojourner, but then changed his mind when she suffered a hand injury in the process of spinning wool. Sojourner swallowed her anger. She met and fell in love with another slave, Robert. But Robert had a different owner, who forbade the relationship. When they were caught together, Robert’s owner beat him so severely that he nearly died – it ruined his health, and he did die within a few years. Sojourner was never able to see him again.
When she was nineteen, she married an older slave and had four more children. The marriage was forced by her owner, Dumont, no doubt hoping to obtain more slaves without cost. Finally, the opportunity presented itself, and she made her break for freedom. She took her infant, Sophie, but had to leave her husband and other children behind. Under the New York emancipation laws, they still had to serve as “bound servants” into their twenties, though technically free.
Sojourner said, “I did not run off, for I thought that wicked, but I walked off, believing that to be all right.”
The major benefit of her time with Dumont was learning English, though she never learned to read or write.
Cold, homeless, and hungry, carrying her baby daughter, she walked about ten miles southeast to New Pfaltz, New York, where Isaac and Maria Van Wagenen took her in and cared for her. To secure her safety, Isaac offered Dumont $20 for her services for the remainder of the year, which Dumont accepted. At the end of the year, New York emancipation laws took effect, and Sojourner was finally free.
Sojourner’s rise in to the annals of history began with her freedom. When she left Dumont, she had to leave children behind. She learned that Dumont sold her son Peter, then five years old, south to Alabama, after his legal emancipation. Refusing to accept it, Sojourner took Dumont to court – virtually unheard of, as African Americans were not citizens of the United States, and had virtually no legal standing. She had the support of the Van Wagenens, and after months of legal wrangling, in 1828 she got her son back. This was the first recorded legal case where an African American woman won in court over a white man. In that same year, Sojourner moved to New York City, working for a pastor. Though she had long had a relationship with God, her faith caught fire, and she began working in the revival movements. With little experience on her own, and only basic education, she fell prey to two different shyster religious movements, first under Robert Matthews, also known as Prophet Matthias, and then William Miller of New York, founder of the Millerite Adventists. Matthews ended up charged with murder, implicating Sojourner, but she was acquitted, while Matthews went to prison. Miller preached the imminent return of Jesus, and even gave a date. When it didn’t happen as prophesied, Sojourner left the movement.
From 1839-42, her son Peter, won back from the clutches of slavery, took a job on a whaling ship. He did not return, lost at sea.
In 1843, Sojourner began a speaking tour, leading people to Jesus, and became popular. Hundreds came from miles around to hear her speak. Though her theme was oriented toward the Gospel, she also spoke of black and women’s rights. She said she felt a move of the Holy Spirit, calling her to preach the truth, and officially left the name Belle Baumfree behind, becoming Sojourner Truth. With her popularity came introductions to prominent abolitionists, such as William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass. Garrison in particular became a patron, sending her on speaking tours. She never learned to read or write, but in 1850 dictated her autobiography. It sold well, and brought national recognition. She lived on the profits.
In 1851, she embarked on a speaking tour for women’s rights, in company of Elizabeth Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. While on this tour, in Akron, Ohio, she gave what became her most well known speech, entitled “Ain’t I a Woman”. An excerpt is given below:
May I say a few words? I want to say a few words about this matter. I am a woman’s rights.I have as much muscle as any man, and can do as much work as any man.I have plowed and reaped and husked and chopped and mowed, and can any man do more than that? I have heard much about the sexes being equal; I can carry as much as any man, and can eat as much too, if I can get it. I am as strong as any man that is now. As for intellect, all I can say is, 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 can’t take more than our pint’ll hold. The poor men seem to be all in confusion, and don’t know what to do. Why children, if you have woman’s rights, give it to her and you will feel better. You will have your own rights, and they won’t be so much trouble. I can’t read, but I can hear. I have heard the Bible and have learned that Eve caused man to sin. Well, if woman upset the world, do give her a chance to set it right side up again. And ain’t I a woman?
Sojourner was a large strong woman, standing over six feet tall. She ultimately split with Frederick Douglass, who felt that Negro men should get the vote before worrying about women. Sojourner said the vote should come simultaneously for both.
Her speaking travels gave her national prominence, and more experience with different parts of the country. Three of her daughters settled in Michigan, and Sojourner joined them. Throughout the 1850s, she continued to speak, and work with the abolition movement. She also helped on the Underground Railroad, leading slaves to freedom. In 1853, she visited Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”. A warm friendship developed, and Stowe wrote a forward to the second edition Sojourner’s book, “Narrative of Sojourner Truth”
When the Civil War started, she lobbied for allowing black troops, and encouraged young black men to join the Federal army. After the war, she was honored with an invitation to the White House and became involved with the Freedmen’s Bureau, helping freed slaves find jobs and build new lives. While in Washington, DC, she lobbied against segregation, and in the mid-1860s, when a streetcar conductor tried to violently block her from riding, she ensured his arrest and won her subsequent case. In the late 1860s, she collected thousands of signatures on a petition to provide former slaves with land, though Congress never took action. Nearly blind and deaf towards the end of her life, Truth spent her final years in Michigan. Sojourner died at her home in Battle Creek, Michigan, on November 26, 1883. She is buried alongside her family at Battle Creek’s Oak Hill Cemetery.