Sojourner Truth: Abolitionist, Minister, Lecturer

Abolitionist, Minister, Ex-Slave, Woman's Rights Activist

Sojourner Truth
Sojourner Truth. © Jone Johnson Lewis

Sojourner Truth was one of the most famous black abolitionists.  Emancipated from slavery by New York state law in 1827, she was an itinerant preacher who became involved in the abolitionist movement, and later in the women's rights movement.  In 1864 she met Abraham Lincoln in his White House office.

Dates: about 1797 - November 26, 1883

Sojourner Truth Biography:

The woman we know as Sojourner Truth was born into slavery in New York as Isabella Baumfree (after her father's owner, Baumfree). Her parents were James and Elizabeth Baumfree. She was sold several times, and while enslaved by the John Dumont family in Ulster County, married Thomas, also enslaved by Dumont, and many years older than Isabella. She had five children with Thomas. In 1827, New York law emancipated all slaves, but 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 -- she discovered that a member of the Dumont family had sold one of her children to slavery in Alabama. Since this son had been emancipated under New York Law, Isabella sued in court and won his return.

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

She 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 many who were interested in abolition and women's rights.

Now connected with the abolitionist movement, she 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 Olive Gilbert and published it in Boston in 1850.  She used income from the book, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth, to pay off her mortgage.

In 1850, she also began speaking on woman suffrage. Her most famous speech, Ain't I a Woman?, was given in 1851 at a women's rights convention in Ohio.

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

Sojourner 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.

During the Civil War Sojourner Truth raised food and clothing contributions for black regiments, and she met Abraham Lincoln at the White House in 1864, in a meeting arranged by Lucy N. Colman and Elizabeth Keckley. While there, she tried to challenge the discrimination that segregated street cars by race.

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

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

Also see:

  • Two Suffrage Movements -1912 article by Martha Gruening which used the dialect version of Truth's speech. "This is what all suffragists must understand, whatever their sex or color -- that all the disfranchised of the earth have a common cause."

Bibliography, Books

  • Bernard, Jacqueline. Journey Toward Freedom: The Story of Sojourner Truth.
  • 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. Glorying in Tribulation: The Lifework of Sojourner Truth.
  • Truth, Sojourner. Narrative of Sojourner.
  • Truth, Sojourner. Narrative of Sojourner Truth, Dover Thrift Editions.