Black History Month — Sojourner Truth

Every year during this month celebrating Black History and those who made it happen, I try to highlight a few of the people who have made outstanding contributions in one area or another that had a positive effect on the nation and the people.  There are so many to choose from that I’ll never run out, I think, although I do periodically redux one from a prior year.  Today, though, I want to tell you a bit about a woman whose name you’ve certainly heard, but you may not know much about her – Sojourner Truth.

Who Was Sojourner Truth?

Sojourner Truth was an African American abolitionist and women’s rights activist best-known for her speech on racial inequalities, “Ain’t I a Woman?”, delivered extemporaneously in 1851 at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention.

Truth was born into slavery but escaped with her infant daughter to freedom in 1826. She devoted her life to the abolitionist cause and helped to recruit Black troops for the Union Army. Although Truth began her career as an abolitionist, the reform causes she sponsored were broad and varied, including prison reform, property rights and universal suffrage.

Family

Historians estimate that Truth (born Isabella Baumfree) was likely born around 1797 in the town of Swartekill, in Ulster County, New York. However, Truth’s date of birth was not recorded, as was typical of children born into slavery.

Truth was one of as many as 12 children born to James and Elizabeth Baumfree. Her father, James Baumfree, was an enslaved person captured in modern-day Ghana. Her mother, Elizabeth Baumfree, also known as Mau-Mau Bet, was the daughter of enslaved people from Guinea.

Early Life as an Enslaved Person

The Baumfree family was owned by Colonel Hardenbergh, and lived at the colonel’s estate in Esopus, New York, 95 miles north of New York City. The area had once been under Dutch control, and both the Baumfrees and the Hardenbaughs spoke Dutch in their daily lives.

After the colonel’s death, ownership of the Baumfrees passed to his son, Charles. The Baumfrees were separated after the death of Charles Hardenbergh in 1806. The 9-year-old Truth, known as “Belle” at the time, was sold at an auction with a flock of sheep for $100. Her new owner was a man named John Neely, whom Truth remembered as harsh and violent.

Over the following two years, Truth would be sold twice more, finally coming to reside on the property of John Dumont at West Park, New York. It was during these years that Truth learned to speak English for the first time.

Sojourner Truth’s Husband and Children

Around 1815, Truth fell in love with an enslaved person named Robert from a neighboring farm. The two had a daughter, Diana. Robert’s owner forbade the relationship, since Diana and any subsequent children produced by the union would be the property of John Dumont rather than himself. Robert and Truth never saw each other again.

In 1817, Dumont compelled Truth to marry an older enslaved person named Thomas. The couple marriage resulted in a son, Peter, and two daughters, Elizabeth and Sophia.

Early Years of Freedom

The state of New York, which had begun to negotiate the abolition of slavery in 1799, emancipated all enslaved people on July 4, 1827. The shift did not come soon enough for Truth.

After John Dumont reneged on a promise to emancipate Truth in late 1826, she escaped to freedom with her infant daughter, Sophia. Her other daughter and son stayed behind.

Shortly after her escape, Truth learned that her son Peter, then 5 years old, had been illegally sold to a man in Alabama. She took the issue to court and eventually secured Peter’s return from the South. The case was one of the first in which a Black woman successfully challenged a white man in a United States court.

Truth’s early years of freedom were marked by several strange hardships. Truth converted to Christianity and moved with her son Peter to New York City in 1829, where she worked as a housekeeper for Christian evangelist Elijah Pierson. She then moved on to the home of Robert Matthews, also known as Prophet Matthias, for whom she also worked as a housekeeper. Matthews had a growing reputation as a con man and a cult leader.

Shortly after Truth changed households, Elijah Pierson died. Robert Matthews was accused of poisoning Pierson in order to benefit from his personal fortune, and the Folgers, a couple who were members of his cult, attempted to implicate Truth in the crime.

In the absence of adequate evidence, Matthews was acquitted. Because he had become a favorite subject of the penny press, he decided to move west. In 1835, Truth brought a slander suit against the Folgers and won.

After Truth’s successful rescue of her son, Peter, from slavery in Alabama, mother and son stayed together until 1839. At that time, Peter took a job on a whaling ship called the Zone of Nantucket.

Truth received three letters from her son between 1840 and 1841. When the ship returned to port in 1842, however, Peter was not on board. Truth never heard from him again.

Abolition and Women’s Rights

On June 1, 1843, Isabella Baumfree changed her name to Sojourner Truth and devoted her life to Methodism and the abolition of slavery.

In 1844, Truth joined the Northampton Association of Education and Industry in Northampton, Massachusetts. Founded by abolitionists, the organization supported a broad reform agenda including women’s rights and pacifism. Members lived together on 500 acres as a self-sufficient community.

Truth met a number of leading abolitionists at Northampton, including William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass and David Ruggles. Although the Northampton community disbanded in 1846, Truth’s career as an activist and reformer was just beginning.

In 1850, Truth spoke at the first National Women’s Rights Convention in Worcester, Massachusetts. She soon began touring regularly with abolitionist George Thompson, speaking to large crowds on the subjects of slavery and human rights.

As Truth’s reputation grew and the abolition movement gained momentum, she drew increasingly larger and more hospitable audiences. She was one of several escaped enslaved people, along with Douglass and Harriet Tubman, to rise to prominence as an abolitionist leader and a testament to the humanity of enslaved people.

‘The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave’

Truth’s memoirs were published under the title The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave in 1850.

Truth dictated her recollections to a friend, Olive Gilbert, since she could not read or write. Garrison wrote the book’s preface.

‘Ain’t I a Woman?’ Speech

In May 1851, Truth delivered an improvised speech at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akron that would come to be known as “Ain’t I a Woman?” The first version of the speech was published a month later by Marius Robinson, editor of Ohio newspaper The Anti-Slavery Bugle, who had attended the convention and recorded Truth’s words himself. It did not include the question “Ain’t I a woman?” even once.

Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter. I think that ‘twixt the Negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what’s all this here talking about?

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 thirteen 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 they talk about this thing in the head; what’s this they call it? [member of audience whispers, “intellect”] That’s it, honey. 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?

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.

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.

Obliged to you for hearing me, and now old Sojourner ain’t got nothing more to say.

There is also a poem, but I am given to understand that Sojourner herself did not write it, but rather the poem was adapted by Erelene Stetson. from her speech.

It seems to me that despite a hard life, Sojourner Truth stood for the things that matter in life, stood her ground for what is right, to eradicate slavery and give women the rights they should have always had.  My hat is off to this fine woman.


My thanks to Biography.com for the above information.

23 thoughts on “Black History Month — Sojourner Truth

  1. A marvelous addition to your monthly series on Black History Month! Two words, amongst many, that describe Sojourner Truth are determination and fortitude. I first heard of Truth’s amazing and storied life long before obtaining books about her. I purchased the 2005 Barnes & Noble Classic Series paperback book “Narrative of Sojourner Truth” after being duped into a shortened version of Truth’s original book. I enjoyed and found fascinating the book “Sojourner Truth : A Life, A Symbol” which was originally published in 1973 by American historian, Nell Irvin Painter. Reprints of that book as a 1996 hardcover and a 1997 paperback are still available for a reasonable cost. You may know of Painter from 2002’s “Southern History across the Color Line”…the second edition of that book came out in early 2021. WHAK!! Thank-you!

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  2. Pingback: BLACK HISTORY MONTH – SEJOURNEY TRUTH. |jilldennison.com | Ramblings of an Occupy Liberal

  3. A fighter all the way, with words and deeds, not weapons. This world needs more like her, not because she was black, but because she was a human! Yet, that she was black, having lived the life she did, made her all that much stronger! And more worth lustening to…

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  4. Reblogged this on It Is What It Is and commented:
    M’lord … I didn’t know about this until a few days, until Rachel mentioned her!! And they was to censor history? … “Sojourner Truth was an African American abolitionist and women’s rights activist best-known for her speech on racial inequalities, “Ain’t I a Woman?”, delivered extemporaneously in 1851 at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention.”

    Liked by 3 people

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  6. Pingback: Black History Month — Sojourner Truth – The Grapevine

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