Biography of Sojourner Truth, Abolitionist and Lecturer

Sojourner Truth

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Sojourner Truth (born Isabella Baumfree; c. 1797–November 26, 1883) was a famous African-American abolitionist and women's rights activist. Emancipated from slavery by New York state law in 1827, she served as an itinerant preacher before becoming involved in the anti-slavery and women's rights movements. In 1864, Truth met Abraham Lincoln in his White House office.

Fast Facts: Sojourner Truth

  • Known For: Truth was an abolitionist and women's rights activist known for her fiery speeches.
  • Also Known As: Isabella Baumfree
  • Born: c. 1797 in Swartekill, New York
  • Parents: James and Elizabeth Baumfree
  • Died: November 26, 1883 in Battle Creek, Michigan
  • Published Works: "The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave" (1850)
  • Notable Quote: "This is what all suffragists must understand, whatever their sex or color—that all the disfranchised of the earth have a common cause."

Early Life

The woman known as Sojourner Truth was born into slavery in New York as Isabella Baumfree (after her father's owner, Baumfree) in 1797. Her parents were James and Elizabeth Baumfree. She was sold several times, and while enslaved by the John Dumont family in Ulster County, she married Thomas, also enslaved by Dumont and who was many years older than Isabella. The couple had five children together. In 1827, New York law emancipated all slaves. At this point, however, Isabella had already left her husband and run away with her youngest child, going to work for the family of Isaac Van Wagenen.

While working for the Van Wagenens—whose name she used briefly—Isabella discovered that a member of the Dumont family had sold one of her children into slavery in Alabama. Since this son had been emancipated under New York Law, Isabella sued in court and won his return.

Preaching

In New York City, Isabella worked as a servant and attended a white Methodist church and an African Methodist Episcopal Church, where she reunited briefly with three of her older siblings.

Isabella came under the influence of a religious prophet named Matthias in 1832. She then moved to a Methodist perfectionist commune, led by Matthias, where she was the only black member, and few members were of the working class. The commune fell apart a few years later, with allegations of sexual improprieties and even murder. Isabella herself was accused of poisoning another member, and she sued successfully for libel in 1835. She continued her work as a household servant until 1843.

William Miller, a millenarian prophet, predicted that Christ would return in 1843 amid economic turmoil during and after the panic of 1837.

On June 1, 1843, Isabella took the name Sojourner Truth, believing this to be on the instructions of the Holy Spirit. She became a traveling preacher (the meaning of her new name, Sojourner), making a tour of Millerite camps. When the Great Disappointment became clear—the world did not end as predicted—she joined a utopian community, the Northampton Association, founded in 1842 by people interested in abolitionism and women's rights.

Abolitionism

After joining the abolitionist movement, Truth became a popular circuit speaker. She made her first antislavery speech in 1845 in New York City. The commune failed in 1846, and she bought a house on Park Street in New York. She dictated her autobiography to women's rights activist Olive Gilbert and published it in Boston in 1850. Truth used the income from the book, "The Narrative of Sojourner Truth," to pay off her mortgage.

In 1850, she also began speaking about women's suffrage. Her most famous speech, "Ain't I a Woman?," was given in 1851 at a women's rights convention in Ohio. The speech—which addressed the ways in which Truth was oppressed for being both black and a woman—remains influential today.

Truth eventually met Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote about her for the Atlantic Monthly and wrote a new introduction to Truth's autobiography.

Later, Truth moved to Michigan and joined yet another religious commune, this one associated with the Friends. She was at one point friendly with Millerites, a religious movement that grew out of Methodism and later became the Seventh Day Adventists.

Civil War

During the Civil War, Truth raised food and clothing contributions for black regiments, and she met Abraham Lincoln at the White House in 1864 (the meeting was arranged by Lucy N. Colman and Elizabeth Keckley). During her White House visit, she tried to challenge the discriminatory policy of segregating street cars by race. Truth was also an active member of the National Freedman's Relief Association.

After the war ended, Truth again traveled and gave lectures, advocating for some time for a "Negro State" in the west. She spoke mainly to white audiences and mostly on religion, the rights of African-Americans and women, and temperance, though immediately after the Civil War she tried to organize efforts to provide jobs for black refugees from the war.

Death

Truth remained active in politics until 1875, when her grandson and companion fell ill and died. She then returned to Michigan, where her health deteriorated. She died in 1883 in a Battle Creek sanitorium of infected ulcers on her legs. Truth was buried in Battle Creek, Michigan, after a well-attended funeral.

Legacy

Truth was a major figure in the abolitionist movement, and she has been widely celebrated for her work. In 1981, she was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame, and in 1986 the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp in her honor. In 2009, a bust of Truth was placed in the U.S. Capitol. Her autobiography is read in classrooms throughout the country.

Sources

  • Bernard, Jacqueline. "Journey Toward Freedom: The Story of Sojourney Truth." Price Stern Sloan, 1967.
  • Saunders Redding, "Sojourner Truth" in "Notable American Women 1607-1950 Volume III P-Z." Edward T. James, editor. Janet Wilson James and Paul S. Boyer, assistant editors. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press, 1971.
  • Stetson, Erlene, and Linda David. "Glorying in Tribulation: The Lifework of Sojourner Truth." Michigan State University Press, 1994.
  • Truth, Sojourner. "The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: a Northern Slave." Dover Publications Inc., 1997.