Sojourner Truth: Needs Subtitle
“You may hiss as much as you please, but women will get their rights anyway. You can’t stop us, neither.” (spoken to young, male hecklers at the 1853 Mob Convention)
Sojourner Truth (1797-1883) spent her life campaigning for equality, and successfully fought against the brutal system which had taken her son away from her.
Born into slavery in 1797 with the name Isabella Baumfree, Truth and her parents—James and Elizabeth Baumfree—were the property of Colonel Johannes Hardenburgh, who owned on estate in the modern day town of Esopus. In 1806, Truth was sold for $100 with a pack of sheep to a man in Kingston, NY.
After two years in the ownership of a man who would regularly beat and rape her, she was sold for $105 to a man in Port Ewan, and then again 18 months later to John Dumont of West Park, NY. All things considered, he was a step up from her previous owners.
Truth spent the first 30 or so years of her life as a slave, and then as a free-woman, in the mid-Hudson Valley region of New York
It was during this time that, in 1815, at the age of 18, Truth fell in love with a man named Robert who was a slave at a neighboring estate. Robert’s owner, however, did not want him in a relationship with a slave he did not own, so he forbade the relationship, and beat Robert. Robert died shortly thereafter of injuries from the beating. One child, a girl named Diana, came of her relationship with Robert.
Two years after this occurrence, she was forced by her owner into marriage with a slave named Thomas. With him she had four more children, although only three of them survived to adulthood.
Truth’s early years took place against the backdrop of the slow implementation of the abolition of slavery in New York State. Though the process began in 1799, it was not legalized until 1827, and the provisions put in place by the laws which abolished slavery had enough loopholes to ensure that many would remained enslaved into the 1840’s.
Truth’s owner had promised to free her in 1826, a year before state emancipation was legalized. But when he went back on his word, she escaped with her infant daughter Sophia; she had to leave her other children behind as they would not be legally free until they reached their 20’s. Of her escape, she said “I did not run off, for I thought that wicked, but I walked off, believing that to be all right.”
Isaac and Maria Van Wagener took her in for a year until the New York State Emancipation Act was legalized; it was during this period that she became a devout Christian. It was also during this period that she learned that her five year old son Peter had been illegally sold south to Alabama.
With the help of the Van Wageners, Truth took the issue to court at the Kingston courthouse, and filed a suit to have Peter returned to her. After months and months, she won her case, and her son—who had suffered abuse at the hands of his southern owner—was returned to her. She was one of the first black women to take a white man to court and win the case. In 1839, Peter took position on a whaling ship, and he most likely perished during the subsequent voyage.
In 1843, a year after Peter’s disappearance was confirmed, she changed her name to Sojourner Truth and told her friends that “The Spirit calls me, and I must go.”
And she did. She spent the rest of her life speaking across the North about the abolition of slavery, and working towards the goals of abolition, women’s suffrage, pacifism, and religious tolerance. She delivered her first speech in 1850 at the National Women’s Rights Convention in Worcester, Massachusetts. In May of 1951, she attended the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio. It was here that she delivered her famous “Ain’t I a Woman” speech.
Though she was a pacifist, she worked as a recruiter for the Union Army during the Civil War. It was during this time that she spoke of women’s rights with the most fervor because she feared that, once black people had attained their freedom from slavery, people would stop caring about the rights of black women.
Beginning in 1870, she spent seven years working to secure land grants for former slaves; she even met with President Ulysses S. Grant. However, she was unsuccessful in this endeavor.
After a lifetime of overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds, and fighting to gain a voice for the voiceless, Truth died in her home in Battle Creek, Michigan on November 26, 1883.