Sojourner Truth was one of the earliest and most passionate female abolitionists, for she herself had once been a slave. She came to be known as the nationally known speaker on human rights for slaves and women. Sojourner Truth was born Isabella Baumfree between 1797 and 1800 in Hurley, New York. (There is no exact record of her date of birth.) She was one of 13 children born to slave parents. She spoke only Dutch until she was sold from her family around the age of eleven. Because of the cruel treatment she suffered at the hands of her new master she learned to speak English quickly, but would continue to speak with a Dutch accent for the rest of her life. Still quite a young woman, she escaped from her New York owner in 1826 after being brutally treated. She had to leave all but one of her children behind.
She was forced to submit to the will of her third master, John Dumont who denied her the choice of a husband, and married an older slave named Thomas. They had five children. She labored for a succession of five masters until the Fourth of July, 1827, when slavery was finally abolished in New York State. Then Isabella became legally free. After prevailing in a courageous court action demanding the return of her youngest son Peter, who had been illegally sold away from her to a slave owner in Alabama, Isabella moved to New York City. There she worked as a housekeeper and became deeply involved in religion.
In 1829 she became a member of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. After fifteen years in New York, Isabella felt a call to become a traveling preacher. After the death of her son, she took the name Sojourner Truth, which means quest for truth, to signify her new role as a traveler telling the truth about slavery. She set out on June 1, 1843 with little more than the clothes on her back, walking through Long Island and Connecticut, speaking to people in the countryside about her life and her relationship with God. By the 1840s, Truth had become a powerful speaker against slavery, often moving her audiences to tears and horror with her firsthand accounts of what many of her black brothers and sisters were enduring at the hands of cruel masters.
She would tell listeners of how some slaves were kept intimidated and afraid to act because of the harsh punishments such as beatings, sometimes with spiked sticks and chains. She herself, as a teenager, had been taken into the barn by her master one afternoon for absolutely no reason and tied up by the wrists. The story goes that he tore the shirt from her back and whipped her with a bundle of sticks until her back bled. She described how she refused to give him the satisfaction of screaming, by clenching her fists so hard her fingernails drew blood from her palms.
She also spoke of the living conditions many slaves were forced to endure, crowded together into cabins with no privacy, overworked, fed scraps in many cases, and clothed in tattered hand-me-downs. Her audiences must have felt the shame as Truth recalled the auction block, upon which men and women alike were frequently forced to strip and stand before potential buyers, who would search their bodies for marks of the whip or of wrist or leg irons, the presence of which would indicate the slave had been frequently punished. The slaves would be forced to endure impersonal and degrading inspections of their teeth, muscles, and other body parts, depending on what the buyer was looking for in the purchase. Sojourner Truth came to Northampton, Massachusetts in 1843 to live at the Northampton Association of Education and Industry, a utopian community in Florence.
It had been founded in 1841 as a cooperative community dedicated to abolitionism, pacifism, equality and the betterment of human life. There, she met progressive thinkers like William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass and David Ruggles. When the association separated in 1846, Truth remained in Northampton, moving for the first time into her own home, on Park Street in Florence, with a loan from Samuel Hill. Although Truth never learned to read or write, she dictated her memoirs to Olive Gilbert and they were published in 1850 as The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave. This book, and her presence as a speaker, made her a sought-after figure on the anti-slavery womans rights lecture circuit.
Over the next decade she traveled and spoke widely. She is particularly remembered for the famous Aint I A Woman? speech, which we read for this class, that she gave at the womans rights convention in Akron, Ohio in 1851. This speech has been a classic expression of womens rights. Truth was self-educated, and much of her speaking bore the stamp of a deep love of and acquaintance with Scripture.
When explaining to Harriet Beecher Stowe how she came to change her name, Truth said she felt God had called her “to travel up and down the land, showing the people their sins and being a sign unto them.” She also possessed a quick wit, coupled with an ability to think fast and turn the unkind words of others against them. Facing a heckler once who told her he did not care for her anti-slavery talk anymore than he would for the bite of a flea, Truth replied, “Perhaps not, but Lord willing I’ll keep you scratching.” She was very involved in political causes, and strongly supported suffrage.
During the Civil War, she gathered supplies for black volunteer regiments, and in tribute to her efforts was asked to be introduced to President Lincoln in the White House in 1864, where he told her that he had heard her speeches long before. Truth was appointed to the National Freedman’s Relief Association in 1864, where she worked diligently to better conditions for African-Americans. She lived long enough to see her people brought to freedom, but never stopped in her efforts to win more equality for them. Right up until her death, in Battle Creek, Michigan, she continued to speak out for her race and died in 1883. She went to her grave a much lamented and beloved figure in abolitionist history.