Sojourner Truth’s life journey saw her rise from slavery to become a powerful and revered abolitionist and suffragist. Born in 1797 in Ulster County, New York, Sojourner was the daughter of slaves. James Baumfree, her father, had been captured in Ghana before being transferred and sold in the United States. Her mother, Mau- Mau Bett was the daughter of slaves captured in Guinea. Sojourner was sold several times during her youth before serving as a slave to the Van Wagener family, and learned Dutch before being taught English years later. She would have five children with another slave, Thomas Just.
Isaac Van Wagener freed Sojourner in 1827, just prior to New York State outlawing slavery. Truth used her newfound freedom, with the help of Quaker friends, to successfully sue for the return of her young son, who had been sold illegally into slavery in the South. She would soon depart for New York City in 1829, where she would become employed as a domestic servant. Sojourner had heard voices in her head encouraging her to evangelize, which she attributed to God. She joined missionary Elijah Pierson’s Retrenchment Society and began preaching in the streets of New York City.
She left New York in 1843, preaching during her travels about the goodness of God and the brotherhood of man. She would end up in Northampton, Massachusetts where she was introduced to abolitionism. Sojourner would become a passionate advocate for abolishing slavery during her time in Northampton. In 1844 she joined the Northampton Association of Education and Industry. The Association, founded by abolitionists, was also an important organization at the time crusading for women’s rights and pacifism. During her time in Northampton, Truth met with and was influenced by established and notable abolitionist leaders William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass and David Ruggles.
Inspired by Lucretia Mott, Sojourner would become involved with the women’s suffrage movement in the early 1850’s. She spoke at the first National Women’s Rights Convention, in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1850. A year later, she would deliver her famous “Aint I A Women?” speech at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention. Although she could not read nor write, Truth had become a formidable and recognized leader. Dictating to her friend Olive Gilbert, Truth published “The Narrative of Sojourner Truth, a Northern Slave”, in 1850.
Truth combined her passions for women’s rights and abolishing slavery, and was seen as a radical in some abolitionist circles. Conservative abolitionists sought establishing rights for black men as a first step towards abolishing slavery, whereas Truth maintained black women and men must be given the same rights.
She would settle in Battle Creek, Michigan during the 1850’s, and as the Civil War began, Sojourner helped gather supplies for black militias fighting for the Union. She was now revered along with Harriet Tubman and Douglass as an anti-slavery leader. She would travel to Washington DC in 1864 where she would meet with Abraham Lincoln. Truth would recall that she told Lincoln that he reminded her of the biblical Daniel in the lion’s den, but with God on his side, he would win, just like Daniel! Lincoln signed her “Book of Life” in which she kept signatures of people she respected along with newspaper clippings and personal letters. President Lincoln appointed Truth to the National Freedmen Relief Association, where Sojourner would help counsel former slaves on resettlement. She would also use her time in Washington to help integrate the city’s streetcar transportation system.
Sojourner Truth passed away on November 26, 1883 but her legacy as a passionate advocate for abolition and women’s rights lives on nearly 140 years later.
Sources \ Credits: Photograph of Sojourner Truth with President Lincoln credited to Photo12 \ UIG
Photograph of Sojourner Truth delivering speech credited to JT Vintage \ UIG
Text sources include:
Sojourner Truth: Ain’t I a Woman? by Patricia C. McKissack and Frederick McKissack (Scholastic Books, 1992)