Sojourner Truth was born Isabella Baumfree to slave parents James and Elizabeth Baumfree in 1797 in Swartekill, Ulster County, New York. She was sold with a flock of sheep for 100 US Dollars to John Neely at an auction after her original owner, Colonel Ardinburgh Hurley died in 1806. She was sold several times to slave masters who treated her cruelly.
At age eighteen, while she was a slave of John Dumont who abused her sexually, she fell in love with a slave from a different farm named Robert in 1815. This relationship was forbidden by Robert’s owners as he would sell the children Isabella would bore.
As the pressure from numerous abolitionist grew, the State of New York finally began to legislate slavery abolition. Dumont promised Isabella her freedom a year before the state’s emancipation if she honored his terms of working diligently. Dumont however, defected from this promise when the time came. Isabella took off with her infant daughter, Sophia, in late 1826, when she felt her obligation to Dumont was done.
Isabella was received by Isaac and Maria Van Wagenen, an abolition family in New Paltz. Dumont tracked Isabella to the Van Wagenen household to reclaim her but Isaac Van Wagenen offer to pay 20 US Dollars for the remainder of her services till the New York State Emancipation Act to effect on July 4, 1827, which John Dumont accepted.
Isabella Baumfree later discovered Dumont had illegally sold off her five-year old son, Peter, to a slave owner in Alabama. Isabella filed a lawsuit against Dumont and after tiring months of legal battle, she got justice as the court order Peter to be returned to his mother. The feat by Isabella etched her in history as the first black woman to sue a white man in a United States court and win.
The religious and spiritual life of the Van Wagenens appealed to Isabella as she gradually accepted the Christian faith and became a staunch Christian.
In 1829, she moved with Peter to New York City where she met Evangelist Elijah Pierson whom she worked for as a housekeeper. In 1932, she worked as the housekeeper for Robert Matthews also known as Joshua the Jewish Minister at the cult “The Kingdom”. Isabella was accused as the accomplice of Robert Matthews for the murdering and robbing her former employer Elijah Pierson. Both were found not guilty and acquitted after standing trial.
Isabella Baumfree became a Methodist in 1843, and on June 1, Pentecost Sunday renamed herself Sojourner Truth, this decision she said was divinely inspired. She set out on the mission “The Spirit” called her to do [preaching the truth and the abolition of slavery]. She moved towards Massachusetts. Truth had an aura of fascination around her as she drew massive crowds who trooped in to watch her sing and preach.
Whiles in Massachusetts, Truth joined the Northampton Association of Education and Industry set up by abolition, women rights and religious tolerance activists in 1844. In this organization, Truth encountered distinguished individuals like Fredrick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison and David Ruggles who fought against slavery. Interactions with these individuals helped Sojourner to begin her struggle for equal rights as she gain platforms to spread her message. The Northampton Association could not hold on its own and was disbanded in 1846.
Sojourner Truth in 1851 delivered her famous speech “Ain’t I a Woman?” at a Women Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, after she has joined abolition speaker George Thompson’s lecture tour in the central and western New York State. She gave many other speeches and even authored a book “Narrative of Sojourner Truth” in 1857.
When the Civil War broke out Truth helped recruit black soldiers and gathered supplies for black volunteer regiments of the Union Army in 1864. She worked at the National Freedman’s Relief Association concerned with the resettlement of black slaves and their reincorporation into society. This act caught the eye of the then President, Abraham Lincoln, as he invited her to the White House to deliberate on the conditions of freed black slaves on October 29, the same year.
After the Civil War, Truth intensified her pursuit for the welling of former slaves as well as the equal rights for women. In 1870, during the administration of President Ulysses Grant, she tried to secure land rights for freed black slaves but she could not achieve this goal, she ensured the peaceful settlement of many freed black slaves to settle in Kansas.
Sojourner Truth died in her Battle Creek home on November 26, 1883. She was buried at the Michigan’s Oak Hill Cemetery at a funeral at the Congregational Presbyterian Church on November 28, 1883.
Fun Facts: Truth was one of the first black women to ride in streetcars during the segregation.
The NASA Mars Pathfinder mission in 1997 rover was named “Sojourner” in her honor.
Video credit: The Story of Liberty