Sojourner Truth: Abolitionist and Women’s Rights Activist

Sojourner Truth was the self-given name of the abolitionist and women’s rights activist, Isabella Baumfree. Isabella Baumfree was born in 1797 in Ulster County, New York. She was born into slavery on the Colonel Johannes Hardenbergh estate. She was later sold to multiple slave-owners including; John Neely, Martinus Schryver, and John Dumont. In 1826 (a year before slaves were emancipated in New York), Isabella Baumfree felt as though she satisfied her obligation to Dumont, and escaped with her infant daughter, Sophia. Baumfree arrived at the house of Isaac and Maria Van Wagenen, who she soon started working for. As stated by Women’s History, at the Wagenen’s, Baumfree experienced a life-changing religious conversion. She settled in New York City, and joined a Methodist perfectionist commune. She became a well-known and remarkable preacher. On June 1st, 1843, Isabella Baumfree changed her name to Sojourner Truth. She believed that changing her name was an instruction from the Holy Spirit. Her new name meant “traveling preacher,” which she became.

Sojourner Truth, later joined the Northampton Association of Education and Industry in Massachusetts. This association was founded by abolitionists who according to Women in History were “strongly anti-slavery, religiously tolerant, women’s rights supporters, and pacifist in principles,”  Truth became a popular speaker of the abolitionists and in the 1850s, she started speaking out for women’s suffrage. Truth delivered her most famous speech, “Ain’t I a Woman?”  in 1851 at a women’s rights convention in Ohio. In the speech, she stated that black women are treated differently and are seen as inferior to white women.

“…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?…”

Truth’s autobiography, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave was published in 1850 by William Lloyd Garrison.

During the Civil War, Sojourner Truth was extremely active. She raised food and clothing contributions for black organizations. Truth also met Abraham Lincoln at the White House in 1864 (see photo). Directly after the war, Truth tried to help provide jobs for black refugees. In 1870, she started campaigning for a “Negro State” in the new west. She pursued this idea for seven years with very little success.

In 1875, Truth developed ulcers on her legs and was forced to minimize her tours and work. She returned to Michigan and died there on November 26, 1883, when she was 86 years old. She was buried in Oak Hill Cemetery next to her grandson.

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