Sojourner Truth, born Isabella Baumfree in 1797, was an active participant in the Women’s Rights movement as well as a strong anti-slavery proponent from the time of her emancipation in 1828 until her death in 1883.
Sojourner Truth was a woman whose stature has increased to legendary proportions over time, a woman whose name has become synonymous with abolitionism and women’s rights and deservedly so. Through numerous legal battles and public speeches Sojourner Truth ensured that her voice would be heard as well as paving the way for anyone who wished to follow in her footsteps after she was gone.
Her immediate and continued impact are what make her such an influential figure in the abolishment of slavery and the progression of women’s rights in America.
Born to slave parents in New York, Truth spoke only Dutch until eleven years of age when she was sold from her family. She learned to speak and understand English quickly, although she never learned to read or write, due to the cruel treatment of her new master. Sojourner was sold a few different times to various slave-owners in the North, but it was her third master, John Dumont that had the longest lasting effect on her.
Dumont forced Truth to marry an older slave named Thomas; they would produce five children together, he also reneged on a promise he made where Sojourner would be granted her freedom. This led her to escape with her infant son just months before the New York State emancipation.
Shortly after her escape Truth began roaming New York preaching, “God’s truth and plan for salvation.” (Women in History)
Sojourner eventually moved to the Northampton Association of Industry and Education in Florence, a community devoted to abolitionism, pacifism, equality and the
betterment of human life. After the association dissolved in 1846 Truth remained in Florence where she bought her first home and dictated her memoirs to Olive Gilbert, one of the many progressive thinkers that was also a contemporary of Truth.
In fact, Frederick Douglass – famous for the narrative of his own life as a slave – once said that Sojourner Truth was, “a strange compound of wit and wisdom, of wild enthusiasm and flintlike common sense.” (History of Sojourner Truth)
Her memoirs along with the speeches Truth gave about her deeply rooted faith, which over time swelled to include other topics such abolitionism and women’s rights, were gaining momentum and Sojourner became a highly sought after speaker.
She was known for her commanding presence and instantly appealing oratory skills. It was these skills coupled with her ability to lobby effectively that would make Sojourner Truth a heroine to many people throughout the country.
Her first name stood as a symbol for her willingness to be mobile in spreading the “Truth,” but although her status was climbing and her speeches were often the stuff of legend she was not always greeted pleasantly.
There were numerous times she found herself in court fighting either arrest charges or legislative battles. (Accomando, 3) It was Sojourner’s successful use of the law to defend her rights, and consequently all blacks’ rights that was her major contribution to the abolitionist movement.
By going into states where she, or any black for that matter, was not wanted and preaching abolitionist rhetoric she proved that a person of color could fight back.
For example, in Indiana, African Americans had been barred, through legislation, from entering the state shortly after the Civil War. Naturally, Sojourner took her speaking tour in 1861 directly through the heart of Indiana, which would make her stay marked by legal trials.
These trials did two things, the first was to show the strength of the government through its anti-black laws, but the second was to show that blacks could use the same system of laws to fight back if they educated themselves and were prepared to fight for their rights and freedoms. It was Sojourner’s ability and willingness to do just this that made her so key to the abolitionist movement. (Accomando, 3) Sojourner recalls the events of 1861 in her narrative “Book of Life” and the impact she had in defeating the charges brought against her:
“The band struck up the "Star Spangled Banner," in which I joined and sang with all my might, while amid flashing bayonets and waving banners our party made its way to the platform upon which I went and advocated free speech with more zeal than ever before, and without interruption.” (Truth, 141)
The Indiana speeches and court cases clearly mark a milestone in Sojourner’s career as an activist for the abolishment of slavery as well as a milestone for the cause itself.
Long before her famous speeches in Indiana railing against slavery and the injustice toward the black community though, Sojourner Truth made a name for herself with a simple phrase repeated throughout the course of a speech on black women’s right, a tactic that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would later use in his famous, “I Have A Dream” speech.
The line with its distinctly Southern phrasing drew its eloquence from its simple sincerity, “Ain’t I a woman?” The speech delivered May 1851 at a Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio stands in history as one of the great achievements in the oratory tradition of political activism. The speech targeted men for their egotism in claiming women (and blacks) should not be given rights because they were not as capable as white men.
These men would claim women should not be given freedoms because Christ was not a woman, to which Truth responded:
“Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.” (Truth, “Ain’t I A Woman?”)
She continued, claiming if man believes women and blacks have less intellect then so be it, but that does not give them justification for disallowing them their rights and freedoms:
“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?” (Truth, “Ain’t I A Woman?”)
The speech was short, taking not much more than five to ten minutes, but the punch delivered was felt throughout the nation as the speech and more directly her phrase became legendary. Frances D. Gage also played a role in the spread of Sojourner’s speech with her own account of the speech in which many details, such as the repetition of the key phrase, “Ain’t I A Woman” was likely embellished and the hostility of the crowd was also exaggerated. (Lewis) This account heighten the intensity surrounding the speech, which had already been intense in its own right, as Sojourner became seen as the crusader against injustice that she is remembered as today.
Sojourner Truth was a woman of great strength both physically and emotionally, a woman who despite years of abuse as a slave and little sense of home for the duration of
her formative years, was able to transform what anger she must have felt into something positive, something progressive.
She took her life experiences and turned them into speeches and narratives that shook race relations in America to its foundation. She was an influential figure for her willingness to not only talk about change, but to live it. She rode the streetcars and demanded equal treatment, preceding Rosa Parks by nearly one hundred years.
She challenged the law at every turn and more often than not, she won.
She never backed down from a fight over injustice toward women or African Americans. She fought well into her sixties and sparked younger generations to continue her fight long after she had passed on. It is for both the work she did during her time on Earth and the work her followers continue to do, both in her name and otherwise, that Sojourner Truth will be remembered. A woman of great strength, courage and conviction who fought for the truth at all times and who helped shape the movement toward equality for all people regardless of race or gender that is still so prevalent today.
• Accomando, Christina. “Demanding A Voice Among the Pettifoggers: Sojourner Truth As A Legal Actor.” MELUS: Spring, 2003.
• “History of Sojourner Truth.” http://www.noho.com/sojourner/history.html.
• Lewis, Jone Johnson. “Women’s History: Ain’t I A Woman, Sojourner Truth.” http://womenshistory.about.com/library/etext/bl_sojourner_truth_woman.htm.
• Truth, Sojourner and Olive Gilbert. Narrative of Sojourner Truth; A Bondswoman of Olden Time, With a History of Her Labors and Correspondences Drawn from her "Book of Life. "Battle Creek: Review and Herald Office, 1878. New York: Oxford UP, 1991.
• Truth, Sojourner. “Ain’t I A Woman?” May 1851. Akron, Ohio.
• “Women in History: Sojourner Truth.” Last Modified: May 30, 2005. http://www.lkwdpl.org/wihohio/trut-soj.htm.