Today in History:

Sojourner Truth (Isabella Baumfree)

From Wikipedia
Sojourner Truth

Born c. 1797
Swartekill, New York
Died November 26, 1883
Battle Creek, Michigan
Occupation Domestic servant, Abolitionist, Author
Parents James and Elizabeth Baumfree

Sojourner Truth (1797–November 26, 1883) was the self-given name, from 1843, of Isabella Baumfree, an American abolitionist and women's rights activist. Truth was born into slavery in Swartekill, New York. Her best-known speech, which became known as Ain't I a Woman?, was delivered in 1851 at the Ohio Women's Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio.

Early years

Truth was born into slavery around 1797. She was one of thirteen children born to James and Elizabeth Baumfree, who were slaves of Colonel Hardenbergh. The Hardenbergh estate was in a hilly area called by the Dutch name Swartekill (just north of present-day Rifton), in the town of Esopus, New York, 95 miles north of New York City.[2] After the colonel's death, ownership of the family slaves passed to his son, Charles Hardenbergh. [3]

In 1806, Hardenbergh sold Truth for $100 to John Neely, near Kingston, New York. Until she was sold, Truth spoke only Dutch.[4] She suffered many hardships at the hands of Neely, whom she later described as cruel and harsh and who once beat her with a bundle of rods. Truth previously said Neely raped and beat her daily. Neely sold her in 1808, for $105, to Martinus Schryver of Port Ewen, a tavern keeper, who owned her for 18 months. Schryver sold her in 1810, for $175, to John Dumont of West Park, New York.[5] Although this fourth owner was kindly disposed toward her, his wife found numerous ways to harass Truth and make her life more difficult.[3]

Around 1815, Truth met and fell in love with a slave named Robert from a neighboring farm. Robert's owner forbade the relationship; he did not want his slave to have children with a slave he did not own, because he would not own the children. Robert was savagely beaten and Truth never saw him again.[6] In 1817, Truth was forced by Dumont to marry an older slave named Thomas. They had five children, Diana, Elizabeth, Hannah, Peter, and Sophia.[4]


The state of New York began, in 1799, to legislate the abolition of slavery, although the process of emancipating New York slaves was not complete until July 4, 1827. Dumont had promised Truth freedom a year before the state emancipation, "if she would do well and be faithful." However, he changed his mind, claiming a hand injury had made her less productive. She was infuriated. She continued working until she felt she had done enough to satisfy her sense of obligation to him by spinning 100 pounds of wool.

Late in 1826, Truth escaped to freedom with her infant daughter, Sophia. She had to leave her other children behind because they were not legally freed in the emancipation order until they had served as bound servants into their twenties.[4]She later said:

I did not run off, for I thought that was wicked, but I walked off, believing that to be all right.[4]

She found her way to the home of Isaac and Maria Van Wagenen, a Quaker family,[7] who took her and her baby in. Isaac offered to buy her services for the remainder of the year (until the state's emancipation took effect), which Dumont accepted for $20.[4] She lived there until the New York State Emancipation Act was approved a year later.

Truth learned that her son Peter, then 8 years old, had been sold illegally by Dumont to an owner in Alabama. With the help of Quaker activists, she took the issue to court and, after months of legal proceedings, got back her son, who had been abused by his new owner.[3]

Truth had a life-changing religious experience during her stay with the Van Wagenens, and became a devout Christian. In 1829 she moved with her son Peter to New York City, where she worked as a housekeeper for Elijah Pierson, a Christian Evangelist. In 1832, she met Robert Matthews, also known as Matthias Kingdom or Prophet Matthias, and went to work for him as a housekeeper.[3] In a bizarre twist of fate, Elijah Pierson died, and Robert Matthews and Truth were accused of stealing from and poisoning Pierson. Both were acquitted and Robert Matthews moved west.[4]

In 1839, Truth's son Peter took a job on a whaling ship called the Zone of Nantucket. From 1840 to 1841, she received three letters from him, though in his third letter he told her he had sent five. When the ship returned to port in 1842, Peter was not on board and Truth never heard from him again.[3]


"The Spirit calls me"

On June 1, 1843, Truth changed her name to Sojourner Truth and told her friends, "The Spirit calls me, and I must go." She became a Methodist, and left to make her way traveling and preaching about abolition. In 1844, she joined the Northampton Association of Education and Industry in Massachusetts. Founded by abolitionists, the organization supported women's rights and religious tolerance as well as pacifism. There were 210 members and they lived on 500 acres (2 km²), raising livestock, running a sawmill, a gristmill, and a silk factory. While there, Truth met William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and David Ruggles (an African-American printer). In 1846, the group disbanded, unable to support itself.[4] In 1847, she went to work as a housekeeper for George Benson, the brother-in-law of William Lloyd Garrison. In 1849, she visited John Dumont before he moved west.[3]

Truth started dictating her memoirs to her friend Olive Gilbert, and in 1850 William Lloyd Garrison privately published her book, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave.[4] That same year, she purchased a home in Northampton for $300.

In 1851, she left Northampton to join George Thompson, an abolitionist and speaker. In May, she attended the Ohio Women's Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio where she delivered her famous speech Ain't I a Woman, a slogan she adopted from one of the most famous abolitionist images, that of a kneeling female slave with the caption "Am I Not a Woman and a Sister?"[8][3]

Reminiscences by Frances Gage
Akron Convention, Akron, Ohio, May 1851
"There were very few women in those days who dared to "speak in meeting"; and the august teachers of the people were seemingly getting the better of us, while the boys in the galleries, and the sneerers among the pews, were hugely enjoying the discomfiture, as they supposed, of the "strong-minded." Some of the tender-skinned friends were on the point of losing dignity, and the atmosphere betokened a storm. When, slowly from her seat in the corner rose Sojourner Truth, who, till now, had scarcely lifted her head. "Don't let her speak!" gasped half a dozen in my ear. She moved slowly and solemnly to the front, laid her old bonnet at her feet, and turned her great speaking eyes to me. There was a hissing sound of disapprobation above and below. I rose and announced "Sojourner Truth," and begged the audience to keep silence for a few moments."
"The tumult subsided at once, and every eye was fixed on this almost Amazon form, which stood nearly six feet high, head erect, and eyes piercing the upper air like one in a dream. At her first word there was a profound hush. She spoke in deep tones, which, though not loud, reached every ear in the house, and away through the throng at the doors and windows."[9]

Over the next decade, Truth spoke before dozens, perhaps hundreds, of audiences. From 1851 to 1853, Truth worked with Marius Robinson, the editor of the Ohio Anti-Slavery Bugle, and traveled around that state speaking. In 1853, she spoke at a suffragist "mob convention" at the Broadway Tabernacle in New York City; that year she also met Harriet Beecher Stowe.[3] In 1856, she traveled to Battle Creek, Michigan, to speak to a group called the Friends of Human Progress. In 1858, someone interrupted a speech and accused her of being a man; Truth opened her blouse and revealed her breasts.[3][4]

Sojourner became a devout Christian after experiencing a profound spiritual awakening in her early adulthood. Truth's faith played a central role in shaping her identity, guiding her actions, and fueling her activism.

As a Christian, Truth drew strength and inspiration from her belief in God's justice and love. She viewed her advocacy for abolition, women's rights, and social justice as an expression of her Christian faith and a fulfillment of God's will. Truth often spoke publicly about her religious convictions, delivering impassioned speeches that blended biblical teachings with calls for social reform.

Truth's faith provided her with resilience, courage, and a sense of purpose as she navigated the challenges of life as an African American woman in a deeply divided and discriminatory society. She saw herself as an instrument of God's grace and used her platform to challenge injustice and advocate for the rights and dignity of marginalized communities.

"Ain't I a Woman?"

Truth delivered her best-known speech in 1851 at the Ohio Women's Rights Convention. The speech has become known as Ain't I a Woman? after Truth's refrain.[10]

The speech as shown here has been revised from the 19th century dialect in which Truth spoke.

Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter. I think that 'twixt the Negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what's all this here talking about?

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?

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?

Then that little man in black there, he says women can't have as much 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.

If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it. The men better let them.

Obliged to you for hearing me, and now old Sojourner ain't got nothing more to say.

--Sojourner Truth


On a mission

Truth sold her home in Northampton in 1857 and bought a house in Harmonia, Michigan, just west of Battle Creek.[4] According to the 1860 census, her household in Harmonia included her daughter, Elizabeth Banks (age 35), and her grandsons James Caldwell (misspelled as "Colvin"; age 16) and Sammy Banks (age 8).[3]

Truth's carte de visite, which she sold to raise money (see inscription).
Truth's carte de visite, which she sold to raise money (see inscription).

During the Civil War, Truth helped recruit black troops for the Union Army. Her grandson, James Caldwell, enlisted in the 54th Massachusetts Regiment. In 1864, Truth was employed by the National Freedman's Relief Association in Washington, D.C., where she worked diligently to improve conditions for African-Americans. In October of that year, she met President Abraham Lincoln.[3] In 1865, while working at the Freedman's Hospital in Washington, Truth rode in the streetcars to help force their desegregation.[3]

Truth wrote a song, "The Valiant Soldiers", for the 1st Michigan Colored Regiment; it was composed during the war and was sung by her in Detroit and Washington, D.C. It is sung to the tune of "John Brown" or the "Battle Hymn of the Republic".[12]

In 1867, Truth moved from Harmonia to Battle Creek. In 1868, she traveled to western New York and visited with Amy Post, and continued traveling all over the East Coast. At a speaking engagement in Florence, Massachusetts, after she had just returned from a very tiring trip, when Truth was called upon to speak she stood up and said,

Children, I have come here like the rest of you, to hear what I have to say.[13]

In 1870, Truth tried to secure land grants from the federal government to former slaves, a project she pursued for seven years without success. While in Washington, D.C., she had a meeting with President Ulysses S. Grant in the White House. In 1872, she returned to Battle Creek and tried to vote in the presidential election, but was turned away at the polling place.[10]

Truth spoke about abolition, women's rights, prison reform, and preached to the Michigan Legislature against capital punishment. Not everyone welcomed her preaching and lectures, but she had many friends and staunch support among many influential people at the time, including Amy Post, Parker Pillsbury, Frances Gage, Wendell Phillips, William Lloyd Garrison, Laura Smith Haviland, Lucretia Mott, and Susan B. Anthony."[13]

Truth died on November 26, 1883, at her home in Battle Creek, Michigan. She is commemorated in a so-called "Michigan Legal Milestones" erected by the State Bar of Michigan.[14] Her remains were buried there at Oak Hill Cemetery beside other family members. Her last words were "Be a follower of the Lord Jesus."[15]


Cultural/Modern references

  • 1862 -- William Story's statue, The Libyan Sibyl", inspired by Sojourner Truth, won an award at the London World Exhibition.[4]
  • 1892 -- Albion artist Frank Courter is commissioned to paint the meeting between Truth and President Abraham Lincoln.[3]
  • 1981 -- Truth is inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York.[3]
  • 1981 -- Feminist theorist and author bell hooks titles her first major work after Truth's "Ain't I a Woman?" speech.
  • 1983 -- Truth is in the first group of women inducted into the Michigan Women's Hall of Fame in Lansing.[3]
  • 1986 -- U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative postage stamp honoring Sojourner Truth.[3]
  • 1993 -- Sweet Honey in the Rock records "Sojourner's Battle Hymn," a song adapted from Truth's own "The Valiant Soldiers," which Truth had written as a marching song for colored regiments in the Civil War to the tune of Julia Ward Howe's "Battle Hymn of the Republic." ("The Battle Hymn" itself was written to the tune of the 12th Massachusetts Regiment's marching song, "John Brown's Body," which was itself written to the tune of the Methodist hymn "Say Brothers, Will You Meet Us?")[16][17]
  • 1997 -- The NASA Mars Pathfinder mission's robotic rover was named "Sojourner" after her.[18]
  • 1998 -- S.T. Writes Home appears on the web offering "Letters to Mom from Sojourner Truth," in which the Mars Pathfinder Rover at times echoes its namesake.
  • 1999 -- The Broadway musical The Civil War includes Sojourner Truth: Ain't I a Woman. On the 1999 cast recording, it was performed by Maya Angelou.
  • The leftist group the Sojourner Truth Organization is named after her.
  • The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America commemorates her as a renewer of society on March 10, with Harriet Tubman.
  • In the computer game Civilization IV, Sojourner Truth is one of the Great Prophets.
  • 2004- The King's College, located inside the Empire State Building in New York City, has a house system (modeled after Oxford University's), and each house is named after an influential leader. In 2004, they voted to name one of the houses 'The House of Sojourner Truth'.



  • Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave (1850).
    • Dover Publications 1997 edition: ISBN 0-486-29899-X
    • Penguin Classics 1998 edition: ISBN 0-14-043678-2. Introduction & notes by Nell Irvin Painter.
    • University of Pennsylvania online edition (html format, one chapter per page)
    • University of Virginia online edition (HTML format, 207 kB, entire book on one page)
  • Paul E. Johnson and Sean Wilentz, The Kingdom of Matthias: A Story of Sex and Salvation in 19th-Century America (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994) ISBN 0-19-509835-8
  • Carleton Mabee with Susan Mabee Newhouse, Sojourner Truth: Slave, Prophet, Legend (New York and London: New York University Press, 1993) ISBN 0-8147-5525-9
  • Nell Irvin Painter, Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Co., 1996) ISBN 0-393-31708-0
  • Erlene Stetson and Linda David, Glorying in Tribulation: The Lifework of Sojourner Truth (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1994) ISBN 0-87013-337-3
  • William Leete Stone, Matthias and his Impostures- or, The Progress of Fanaticism (New York, 1835) Internet Archive online edition (pdf format, 16.9 MB, entire book on one pdf)
  • Gilbert Vale, Fanaticism - It's Source and Influence Illustrated by the Simple Narrative of Isabella, in the Case of Matthias, Mr. and Mrs. B. Folger, Mr. Pierson, Mr. Mills, Catherine, Isabella, &c. &c. (New York, 1835) Google Books online edition (pdf format, 9.9 MB, entire book on one pdf or one page per page)



  1. ^ Wood, Norman B. White Side of a Black Subject Chicago: American Publishing, 1897. sourced from Portrait page. Retrieved on December 30, 2006.
  2. ^ Whalin, W. Terry (1997). Sojourner Truth. Barbour Publishing, Inc.. ISBN 9781593106294. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p Amazing Life page. Sojourner Truth Institute site. Retrieved on December 28, 2006.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Sojourner Truth page. Women in History site. Retrieved on December 28, 2006.
  5. ^ State University of New York at New Paltz. On the trail of Sojourner Truth in Ulster County, New York by Corinne Nyquist Librarian, Sojourner Truth Library. Retrieved on March 6, 2008.
  6. ^ Sojourner Truth page. Narrative of Sojourner Truth. Retrieved on December 28, 2006.
  7. ^ Sojourner Truth page. Michigan Women's Hall of Fame. Retrieved on December 28, 2006.
  8. ^ Virtual Exhibitions - artifacts of the Abolitionist movement page. Daughters of the American Revolution site. Retrieved on December 28, 2006.
  9. ^ Sojourner Truth page. Women History. Retrieved on December 28, 2006.
  10. ^ a b Sojourner Truth Page. American Suffragist Movement. Retrieved on December 29, 2006.
  11. ^ Sojourner Truth Page. Fordham University. Retrieved on December 30, 2006.
  12. ^ Documenting the American South. Narrative of Sojourner Truth. Retrieved on November 7, 2007.
  13. ^ a b Sojourner Truth page. Sojourner Truth Biography. Retrieved on December 28, 2006.
  14. ^ Michigan Legal Milestones.
  15. ^ People of Faith: Sojourner Truth. Public Broadcasting Service. Retrieved on February 22, 2007.
  16. ^ Vowell, Sarah. "John Brown's Body." In: The Rose and the Briar: Death, Love, and Liberty in the American Ballad. Marcus, Greil, and Sean Wilentz, eds. NY, NY: W.W. Norton and Co., 2005.
  17. ^ Reagon, Bernice Johnson. If You Don't Go, Don't Hinder Me: The African American Sacred Song Tradition. University of Nebraska Press, 2000.
  18. ^ NASA, NASA Names First Rover to Explore the Surface of Mars. Accessed 4 December 2006.


External links

All text is available under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License. (See Copyrights for details.)