Sojourner Truth was an African American abolitionist who became the first black woman to successfully sue and win the case against a white man to recover her son who had been illegally sold into slavery. She was also a well known women’s rights activist who rose to prominence with her ‘Ain’t I a Woman?’ speech delivered at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention. Born as Isabella Baumfree, she took up the name Sojourner Truth when she had a spiritual revelation about the purpose of her life and started traveling and preaching about abolition of slavery. She herself had been born into slavery and was later forcibly married off to another slave. She became the mother of five children, two of whom she was able to save from slavery; her other children however could not be rescued before they were legally freed. She later joined the Northampton Association of Education and Industry in Northampton, Massachusetts which had been founded by the major abolitionists of those times. Here she became acquainted with William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and David Ruggles. After the group disbanded, she joined the abolitionist George Benson and along with him started attending conventions and delivering speeches on anti-slavery issues, women’s rights, prison reforms, etc. She was a highly respected orator much admired by abolitionists and women’s rights activists for her works.
Childhood & Early Life
She was one of the several children—historians mention this figure to be either 10 or 12—born to slaves James Baumfree and Elizabeth. Her parents were owned by Colonel Hardenbergh.
After the death of her owners, Truth was sold off at an auction along with a flock of sheep in 1806. She was just nine years old then. Her new owner John Neely was a very cruel man.
She was sold off a couple more times before she became the property of John Dumont in 1810. Dumont was kind towards his slaves but his wife ill-treated them and made their lives miserable.
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The work on legislation to abolish slavery had started by 1799 in the state of New York although the legal proceeding for emancipating all the slaves was completed only by July 1827. Truth escaped to freedom with her infant daughter in late 1826; she had to leave behind her other children as they could not be legally freed.
She found work at the home of Isaac and Maria Van Wagener and lived there till the approval of the New York State Emancipation Act in 1827.
Truth’s five year old son Peter had been illegally sold off by Dumont after the passing of the law that freed all the slaves. She went to get back her son whom she learnt was being abused by his new owner. She won the case after months of lengthy legal proceedings and became one of the first black women to win such a case against a white man.
She converted to Christianity and moved with Peter to New York City where she found work as a housekeeper for a Christian Evangelist, Elijah Pierson, and worked for him till his death.
She had a spiritual experience in 1843 and she adopted the name ‘Sojourner Truth’. She started traveling and giving speeches about abolition of slavery. She joined the Northampton Association of Education and Industry in Northampton, Massachusetts in 1844. At the association which was founded by abolitionists, she met famous personalities like William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and David Ruggles.
She was not educated and could not read or write. So she dictated her memoirs to a friend Olive Gilbert. William Lloyd Garrison, a famous abolitionist, privately published her book ‘The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave’ in 1850.
He joined George Thompson, an abolitionist and speaker in 1851. She attended the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention where she delivered the famous speech which came to be known as ‘Ain’t I a Woman?’
She worked with Marius Robinson, the editor of the ‘Ohio Anti-Slavery Bugle’ from 1851 to 1853. She became a much sought after speaker on abolition and spent the next several years traveling and speaking on topics like slavery, women’s suffrage, politics, prison reforms, women’s rights, etc.
She spoke to the American Equal Rights Association in 1867 where she was promoted as one of the main convention speakers. She spoke of the rights of black women and on the issue of women’s suffrage which she felt was a highly ignored right of women.
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She advocated for the recruitment of black soldiers in the army during the Civil War. Her own grandson led by example by enlisting in the 54th Massachusetts Regiment.
She was one of the foremost feminist leaders of the abolition movement and a campaigner for women’s rights. She was a forceful orator who fearlessly spoke about varied topics like anti-slavery movements, women’s emancipation, capital punishment, prison reforms, and universal property rights, among others.
Personal Life & Legacy
As a teenager she fell in love with a slave named Robert who had a different owner. She even had a child with him even though they could not get married as Robert’s owner forbade him to do so.
Her owner Dumont forced her to marry another slave, Thomas, with whom she had four children including one who died as an infant.
She led a very active life and continued speaking and campaigning well into her old age. She died of old age related problems in 1883.
This abolitionist was listed on the list of 100 Greatest African Americans by the scholar Molefi Asante in 2002.
She was the first black woman to be honoured with a bust in the U.S. Capitol; her bust was sculpted by the noted artist Artis Lane.