Sojourner TruthMay 26th, 2011 | By BHS | Category: Activism
1797? – 1883 Sojourner Truth was a tireless activist proselytizing on behalf of African Americans’ and women’s rights. Through an inspiring combination of religious passion and civil rights oratory, informed by her years of mistreatment as a slave and empowered by effective legal activism, she was a singular force in the early abolitionist period and the fight for just treatment for Blacks and women.
The Road to Freedom
Born into slavery as Isabella Bomefree in approximately 1797, Truth was named for a former owner of her father. Her initial home in Ulster County, New York was owned by a Dutchman, and her original language was Low Dutch. After being sold several times, Truth married another slave named Thomas at the age of 14, and had five children with him. Hope arose for Truth and her family when New York State passed an emancipation law, which mandated freedom for all slaves by 1827; but her master’s broken promise to release her one year ahead of schedule led her to flee with one son in 1826.
She found shelter with a Quaker family, the Von Wageners. Upon learning that another of her sons had been illegally sold into perpetual slavery in Alabama, she successfully sued for the boy’s return to New York. Assisted by abolitionists, she then made her way to New York City where she worked as a domestic and became involved with a series of religious and evangelical movements, including the Magdelene Society and the Zion Hill commune. Truth was falsely accused in allegations made against one of these groups, and was again successful in suing for libel in court. She joined the Millerites in 1843, who believed the world would end that year. Claiming that she had been divinely inspired to take on a new vocation, she changed her name to Sojourner Truth (meaning traveling preacher) and began evangelizing across Long Island, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. When the world survived 1843, Truth joined the utopian Northampton Association community whose progressive members included Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison.
At Garrison’s suggestion, Truth (who remained illiterate throughout her life) dictated an autobiographical account of her life as a slave. Published in 1850 as “The Narrative of Sojourner Truth,” the book became widely popular after Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote about it in The Atlantic Monthly magazine, and provided a new introduction. The book, with its brutal depiction of inhumane and degrading treatment of Blacks, became a key element in the abolitionist movement’s arsenal. Proceeds from its sale enabled Truth to purchase a home in Massachusetts and devote herself to the civil rights cause. She was among the first feminists to perceive the connection between racism and sexism, and immediately included women’s rights in her campaign. Her most famous speech, commonly known as “Ain’t I a Woman?,” was delivered at a women’s rights convention in Ohio. In response to a clergyman in the audience who questioned the right of women to vote, Truth declared: “I could work as much and eat as much as a man… and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman?” She was widely known for her crisp wit and intelligence, and a moving bass voice. Other prominent supporters at the time included Amy Post, Parker Pillsbury, Frances Gage, Wendell Phillips, Laura Haviland, Lucretia Mott, and Susan B. Anthony.
Truth moved to Washington, D.C. in 1863 to work with black Civil War soldiers and a large black refugee population that had moved to the Capitol believing it would provide better treatment than their former slave homes. She assisted families in learning basic domestic skills, raised contributions of clothing and food for black regiments, and challenged the segregated trolley-car system in the city with Congressional action. She was invited by President Abraham Lincoln to meet with him at the White House, and was appointed to the National Freedman’s Relief Association in 1864.
In 1867, she created a service to match unemployed war veterans with job opportunities in New York State and Michigan. Her insights into the economic disparities affecting those whose forced labor had helped build the United States economy led her to campaign for reparations in the form of land grants for African Americans in the West. While this movement failed to gain formal status, she did help motivate a large exodus of Blacks and focused national attention with her impassioned oratory: “Our nerves and sinews, our tears and blood, have been sacrificed on the altar of this nation’s avarice. Our unpaid labor has been a stepping stone to its financial success. Some of its dividends must surely be ours.”
By the later stages of her life, Truth had moved to Battle Creek, Michigan. She continued to speak out for her race and her beliefs until she died there at home on November 26, 1883. Her funeral was attended by as many as 1,000 people. Among other honors, Truth has been named to the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame and the National Women’s Hall of Fame. Her legacy of deep conviction married to direct action continues to inspire African Americans and feminists to this day.