Sojourner Truth was an African-American abolitionist and women’s rights activist.
Truth was born Isabella Baumfree around 1797 to James and Elizabeth Baumfree in the town of Swartekill, in Ulster County, New York. Her father was a slave who had been captured in modern-day Ghana and her mother was the daughter of slaves from Guinea. The family were owned by Colonel Hardenbergh and lived at his estate in Esopus, New York. The area had previously been under Dutch control and both the Baumfree and Hardenbaugh families spoke Dutch. After the death of both Colonel Hardenbergh and his son Charles the Baumfree were separated and Truth was sold at auction with flock of sheep for $100 to John Neely. Over the next two years she was sold twice more before settling on the property of John Dumont at West Park, New York where she learnt to speak English.
In 1799 the state of New York began to legislate the abolition of slavery, the process was not complete until July 4th 1827 when all New York slaves were emancipated. Truth’s owner, Dumont had promised to grant Truth her freedom the year before in 1826 but had reneged on his promise. Later that year, Truth and her daughter Sophia escaped to freedom and were taken in by Isaac and Maria Van Wagenen. Isaac offered to pay for her services until emancipation took effect and Dumont accepted. Truth’s remaining children were still with Dumont and she soon learned that he had illegally sold her son Peter to an owner in Alabama. Truth and the Van Wagenens went to court and in 1828 she finally got her son back. Truth was one of the first black women to go to court against a white man and win the case.
During her time with the Van Wagenens Truth became a devout Christian and when she moved to New York City in 1829 she became a housekeeper for Christian evangelist Elijah Pierson before moving on to work for Robert Matthews, also known as Prophet Matthias at the Matthias Kingdom communal colony. Not long after Truth had switched employers, Elijah Pierson died and Matthews was accused on poisoning him in order to benefit from his personal fortune. Truth was implicated in the crime but both were acquitted. Truth later brought a slander suit against the Folgers, the couple who had tried to frame her for the crime and won.
In 1843 Isabella Baumfree changed her name to Sojourner Truth. She began to devote her life to Methodism and the abolition of slavery and in 1844 she joined the Northampton Association of Education and Industry in Northampton, Massachusetts. The organisation supported a broad reform agenda including women’s rights and pacifism. Truth met leading abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass and David Ruggles. In 1846 the Northampton community disbanded and Truth’s career as an activist and reformer began to gain momentum. In 1850 her memoirs ‘The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave’ were published with a preface written by William Lloyd Garrison. That same year, Truth spoke at the first National Women’s Rights Convention in Worcester, Massachusetts, this event lead to many others and she began to travel with abolitionist George Thompson and give speeches on slavery and human rights. Truth, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman all rose to prominence as abolitionist leaders and a testament to the humanity of enslaved people. In 1851 Truth spoke at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akron. Her speech is now known as “Ain’t I a Woman?” although as a native Dutch speaker, it is unlikely that she would have said this. In the first written version of the speech, published by Ohio newspaper ‘The Anti-Slavery Bugle’ the phrase did not appear once.
For the next 10 years Truth continued to tour, speaking before dozens, perhaps hundreds, of audiences. She also worked closely with Marius Robinson, the editor of the Ohio Anti-Slavery Bugle to publicise the antislavery movement in the state of Ohio. In 1853 Truth spoke at a suffragist “mob convention” at the Broadway Tabernacle in New York City, she also met Harriet Beecher Stowe that year. In 1856 she spoke to a group called the Friends of Human Progress at Battle Creek, Michigan. Truth’s opinions were considered radical, even in abolitionist circles. She was fighting for political equality for all women and chastised the abolitionist community for failing to seek civil rights for black women as well as men. She openly spoke about the fact that she believed that once they had secured victories for Black men, the movement would end. In 1864 Truth used her reputation to recruit black men to the Civil War and was called to Washington, D.C., to contribute to the National Freedman’s Relief Association.
After Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation Truth in continued to fight for change. She attempted to force the desegregation of streetcars in Washington by riding in cars designated for whites and fought to secure land grants from the federal government for former slaves but was unsuccessful. Truth is known as one of the foremost leaders of the abolition movement and an early advocate of women’s rights. She fought for prison reform, property rights and universal suffrage but Abolition was one of the only causes she saw realised in her lifetime. It would be four decades after her death until The Constitutional Amendment barring suffrage discrimination based on sex was ratified in 1920.