Sojourner Truth - A slave, a woman, a speaker

Isabella Baumfree was born in 1797 on an estate in New York owned by a Dutch American. She was born into slavery, and she experienced all the hardship that came with it. However, decades later she would change her name to Sojourner Truth, and by the time she died she was a free woman who was revered by many. In 1806, at the age of 9, Isabella was sold along with a flock of sheep for $100 (Whalin, 1997). When she was sold, she spoke only Dutch, and although she learnt English, she always spoke with a Dutch accent (Women in History Ohio, 2021). Her childhood didn't get much easier.

In 1810 she was bought by John Dumont; she was only 13. Dumont raped Isabella repeatedly. His wife harassed her and made her life even more difficult (Washington, 2009). In 1815, Isabella gave birth to John Dumont's child - Diana. When she was 18, Isabella fell in love with another slave called Robert (Women in History Ohio, 2021). Since Robert had a different owner to Isabella, any children they had would belong to Robert's owner not to Dumont, thus he refused to allow the relationship. Instead, Isabella was forced to marry a man named Thomas. Isabella and Thomas had three children together - Peter, 1821, Elizabeth, 1825, Sophia, 1826.

Isabella Baumfree had endured years of suffering as a slave, so it must have been welcome news when in 1799, New York state began to legislate the abolition of slavery. Emancipation in the state was completed on July 4th, 1827, but Isabella had been promised freedom a couple of years before that. Dumont didn't keep his word (Women in History Ohio, 2021). Isabella took matters into her own hands; she finished the work she believed she owed Dumont and then she escaped with her infant daughter Sophia. She was unable to take her other children as legally they would not be freed until they had served as bound servants into their 20s (Women in History Ohio, 2021). Isabella took refuge with Isaac and Maria Van Wagenen, when Dumont came to reclaim his 'property' Isaac and Maria offered to buy Isabella's services for $20 until the anti-slavery law came into effect. Dumont accepted their offer (History, 2021). Shortly after emancipation, Isabella learnt that Dumont had illegally sold her five-year-old son, Peter, to an owner in Alabama. With the support of the Van Wagenens she took Dumont to court and in 1828, the court ruled that the sale of her son was illegal and thus her son was returned to her. Isabella Baumfree became the first black woman to sue a white man in the US and win (History, 2021).

The Van Wagenens had a significant impact on Isabella, particularly on her faith. Whilst living with them she became a fervent Christian, and in 1829 she moved to New York City where she worked as a housekeeper for an evangelist preacher - Elijah Pierson. Three years later, she moved and worked for another preacher. All this time she was developing her beliefs, and her desire to preach and win converts was growing. In 1843, Isabella Baumfree changed her name to Sojourner Truth, the name by which she would be remembered. Truth embarked on a journey to preach and speak against slavery and oppression (History, 2021).

In 1851, Truth joined a lecture tour with George Thompson. In May she attended the Ohio Women's rights convention where Truth delivered her most famous speech which became known by the title 'Ain't I a woman'. There are two key versions of Truth's speech from that convention. The first was published a month after the convention by Rev. Marius Robinson a newspaper owner and editor who was in the audience. In this version of her speech, Truth never used the phrase 'Ain't I a woman'. Truth argued that women were equally capable as men through her own life story. She argued 'I am a woman's rights. I have as much as any man and can do as much work as any man' (The Sojourner Truth Project, 2021). If a slave woman had worked just as much and just as hard as any man, so how could someone argue that women are weaker. Truth would repeatedly draw on her experiences as a slave whilst preaching in favour of emancipation and women's rights. 12 years after her speech was first published, a second version was published. Frances Dana Barker Gage had helped organise the convention in Ohio 12 years previously. Gage's version of Truth's speech was markedly different to that published by Robinson. Truth was from New York and had a Dutch accent, yet Gage's version used characteristics of southern dialect. It is this version of the speech which utilised the famous line 'Ain't I a woman' which was repeated four times despite never appearing in the original version published in 1851.

Sojourner Truth made numerous other speeches during her life. At a convention in 1853, men greeted her with hissing and groaning to which she replied, 'You may hiss as much as you please, but women will get their rights anyway. You can't stop us neither' (Mabee, 1995). In contrast, at the American Equal Rights Association, 1867, she was received with loud cheers instead of hisses. A publication titled The Call had advertised Truth as one of the main speakers; by 1867 Truth's reputation as an excellent speaker had become well established (Montgomery, 1968). Her speech was divided into three parts. Firstly, she focused on black women's rights, following which she used bible stories to strengthen her argument for women's rights. Finally, she focused on women's right to vote. In 1871, Truth delivered a speech commemorating the 'Eighth Anniversary of Negro Freedom' and 'Every available space for sitting and standing room was crowded' Montgomery, 1968).

Truth dedicated her life to the equality of African Americans and women whether that be abolition, voting rights or property rights. During the civil war she helped recruit Black troops for the Union Army. In 1864, she was employed by the National Freedman's Relief Association in Washington, D.C where she worked to improve conditions for African Americans. Later that year Sojourner Truth was invited to meet President Abraham Lincoln. Truth was always looking for new causes to fight for. In 1865 she rode in streetcars to help force desegregation - a century before Rosa Parks' protest on a Bus in Alabama. She was committed to improving the rights of the disenfranchised.

In the final weeks of her life, Truth was cared for by two of her daughters. On 26th November 1883, she died. Two days later, on November 28th, her funeral took place, and was attended by nearly 1000 people - a testament to the lives she had touched and the people she inspired. Another formerly escaped slave, Frederick Douglass, who gave the eulogy at the funeral said that Truth was 'Venerable for age, distinguished for insight into human nature, remarkable for independence and courageous self-assertion, devoted to the welfare of her race, she has been for the last 40 years an object of respect and admiration to social reformers everywhere' (Russell, 2009).

Sojourner Truth's legacy is a far reaching one. Across the USA there are countless memorials in her name. The first memorial be erected was in Michigan (where she died) in 1935 - a simple stone memorial. Since then, she has had schools, works of art, and plaques, in her honour, and even Interstate 194, now called Sojourner Truth Downtown Parkway. In 1999 a 12-foot statue in bronze was erected of Sojourner Truth. Perhaps most significantly a statue of Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony was added to central park to mark the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment. This statue commemorating women gaining the right to vote is the first sculpture in central park to depict historical women. The only other female statue is of the fictional character Alice in Wonderland. It is perhaps concerning that it has taken so long for a statue to commemorate women, but hopefully it won't be the last. Truth's memorials don't end there - Sojourner Truth Library, New York, and Sojourner Douglas College, Baltimore, are both named after her, and across the USA there are Sojourner Truth houses which provide shelter to women facing homelessness or domestic abuse. Truth died over 100 years ago, but her name lives on, and with Sojourner Truth house there are still people fighting to protect women in Truth's name. That is a legacy I am sure Truth would be proud of.

Works cited:

History. (2021, May 25). Sojourner Truth.

Lewis, S. (2020, August 26). Central Park unveils statue of women's rights pioneers - its first statue of real-life women. CBS News.

Mabee, C. (1995). Sojourner Truth: Slave, Prophet, Legend. NYU Press.

Montgomery, J. (1968). A comparative Analysis of the Rhetoric of Two Negro Women Orators - Sojourner Truth and Frances E. Watkins Harper. Fort Hays Kansas State College.

National Womens History Museum (NWHM). (2021, September 13). Sojourner Truth.

Russell, D. (2009). Black Genius: Inspirational Portraits of African-American Leaders. Skyhorse Publishing Inc.

Sojourner Truth Institute site. (2006, December 26). Amazing Life Page.

The Sojourner Truth Project. (2021,  September 14). Compare the Two Speeches.

Washington, M. (2009). Sojourner Truth's America. University of Illinois Press.

Whalin, W. Terry. (1997). Sojourner Truth. Barbour Publishing, Inc.

Women In History Ohio. (2021, September 13). Women In History- Sojourner Truth.