Sojourner Truth was an African American abolitionist, women’s rights activist, author and evangelist born into slavery in Swartekill, New York, serving several masters before escaping with her infant daughter to freedom in 1826.
After gaining her freedom, she became a Christian and as a result of her newfound faith, at what she believed to be God’s exhortation, she became a fundamental piece in the history of abolitionism and the fight for women’s rights. Her revolutionary “Ain’t I a woman” speech delivered at the women’s convention in Ohio in 1856 highlighted her stance on the cause. She spoke about equal rights for black women. She used the notable rhetorical question “Ain’t I a woman” to highlight the discrimination and oppression she faced as a black woman.
Born Isabella Baumfree in 1797, Sojourner Truth was sold at a slave auction to John Neely for $100 along with a flock of sheep. She was sold two more times by the time she turned 13 and ultimately ended up at the New York home of John Dumont. She was forced to marry another slave on Dumont’s farm, eventually bearing five children. On June 1, 1843, Isabella Baumfree changed her name to Sojourner Truth and devoted her life to God, the fight for women’s rights and the abolition of slavery.
New York started legalising emancipation at the turn of the 19th century and Dumont promised that he’d grant Sojourner her freedom on July 4, 1826 however, when the day came he refused to let her go. Enraged, upon completion of what she believed to be her obligation to Dumont, Sojourner escaped his clutches, seizing her emancipation if he would not give it to her with her infant daughter in tow. She later said, “I did not run off, for I thought that wicked, but I walked off, believing that to be all right.” She was forced to leave her other children behind as they were still legally bound to Dumont. She escaped to New Paltz, New York, where she and her daughter were taken in by Isaac and Maria Van Wagenen. When Dumont came to reclaim his “property,” the Van Wagenens offered to buy Isabella’s services from him for $20 until the New York Anti-Slavery Law emancipating all slaves took effect in 1827; Dumont agreed.
After the New York Anti-Slavery Law was passed and emancipation fully legalised, Dumont illegally sold Sojourner’s five-year-old son Peter. With the help of the Van Wagenens, she filed a lawsuit to get him back.
Months later, Isabella won her case and regained custody of her son. This iconoclast case and ruling made her the first black woman to sue a white man in a United States court and win.
In 1867, Truth moved to Battle Creek, Michigan where she continued to speak out against discrimination and in favour of women’s suffrage. She was especially concerned that some civil rights leaders such as Frederick Douglass felt equal rights for black men took precedence over those of black women.
Her faith always played a large part in her activism and said faith was often used by people who opposed her activism to disregard it. She was quoted saying “Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as many rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.” She also said “Children, who made your skin white? Was it not God? Who made mine black? Was it not the same God? Am I to blame, therefore, because my skin is black? …. Does not God love coloured children as well as white children? And did not the same Savior die to save the one as well as the other?” Her faith was intertwined with her activism.
Truth’s mark on the world cannot be erased. Her bravery and strength set the foundation for years of activism for the rights of black women to come. In addition to the weight of her actions, Sojourner left behind a legacy of words and songs including her memoir, “The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave”, which she dictated in 1850 to Olive Gilbert since she never learned to read or write.
Truth’s sojourn on earth and her work for the black community continue to reflect in the world today. She devoted her life to the abolitionist cause, the quest for equal rights for black men and women particularly, prison reform, property rights and universal suffrage. Her invaluable efforts will never be forgotten.