The exact date of her birth was not recorded. We only know that in the year 1797, among Dutch immigrants settled in the region now known as Ulster County, New York, an African child was born on the estate of Colonel Johannes Hardenbergh. One of 13 children born to Elizabeth and James Baumfree, she was given the name Isabella Baumfree. As the story goes, this name gave her no hint of her mission so years later she renamed herself Sojourner Truth. Her life was a testament to this mission as a truth-teller.
Sojourner Truth’s parents, the Baumfrees, were enslaved Africans on the Hardenbergh plantation in Swartekill, New York. She spoke only Dutch until age nine when she was sold from her parents care to one Englishman named John Neely. The harshness of both her Dutch and English slavers would be told by Truth in many of her later anti-slavery speeches across the new nation. She underwent a number of transfers between slave-owners and suffered what she described as cruelties that one dare not imagine against a young African girl child enslaved in America.
In 1815, Truth said she fell in love with Robert, enslaved on a different plantation. The relationship was forbidden by both slavers. The two stole away visits despite the demands that they do no see each other. Robert’s captor, aided by his son, followed Robert on one visit to see Truth. She reported that Robert sustained “bruising and mangling [of] his head and face” and was dragged away. Truth had a daughter that she named Diane soon thereafter.
By 1817, Sojourner Truth had been sold to John Dumont of New Paltz, New York. she was forced to marry an older African named Thomas. They had four children: Peter (1822), James (who died young), Elizabeth (1825), and Sophia (1826). Truth said that she continued working for Dumont until she felt she had completed any obligation she may have had to him.
“I did not run off, for I thought that wicked,” said Sojourner Truth, describing her leaving with her youngest daughter Sophia from the Dumont plantation in New York , “but I walked off, believing that to be all right.”
She soon set plans to secure her youngest son Peter who had been loaned by Dumont to another slaver who had then sold the five-year-old child to slave-owners in the State of Alabama. With the help of the anti-slavery Quakers, Truth filed a court petition in the State of New York pleading with the court to grant the return of her son. There was great anti-slavery in New York at the time, as the state legislation was passed in 1827 legally abolishing slavery. Sojourner Truth won and her son Peter was soon returned to New York.
While living in the home of Isaac and Maria Van Wagenens, Truth had a life-changing religious experience. She started to speak in public assemblies. She became known as a gifted preacher. She joined the Progressive Friends, an organization established by the Quakers, which pressed forward the cause of abolishing slavery throughout America. Truth also became active in the Union’s efforts during the Civil War. She helped enlist Black troops. Her grandson James Caldwell served in the 54th Regiment, Massachusetts.
“In 1864, she worked among freed slaves at a government refugee camp on an island in Virginia and was employed by the National Freedman’s Relief Association in Washington, D.C.,” according to Women in History: Living vignettes of notable women from U.S. history. “In 1863, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s article “The Libyan Sibyl” appeared in the Atlantic Monthly; a romanticized description of Sojourner.”
At the end of the Civil War, Truth worked on behalf of the Freedman’s Hospital in Washington through the Freedman’s Relief Association.
In 1867, she moved to Battle Creek, Michigan. While unsuccessful in her efforts, for several years she lobbyed the U.S. federal government land in the Western states for former enslaved Africans. Illness began to reduce her speaking tours. In 1879, she spent a year in Kansas city to help settling African migrants she called “Exodusters”. In addition to racial and gender equality issues, Truth campaigned against capital punishment and called for temperance.
On November 26, 1883, Sojourner Truth was surrounded by her family at her death bed. She was 86 years old when she died surrounded by her family in Battle Creek, Michigan. She was buried in Oak Hill Cemetery, next to her grandson’s gravesite. More than 200 years later, her legacy as a truth-keeper continues to ignite the imagination of the new nation for which she found herself in service. Soujourner Truth lived during times of great change.
“I hope that Sojourner Truth would be proud to see me, a descendant of slaves, serving as the first lady of the United States of America,” said Michelle Obama at the April 28, 2009 commemorative ceremony unveiling the Sojourner Truth bronze bust by sculptor Artis Lane. “Now many young boys and girls, like my own daughters, will come to Emancipation Hall and see the face of a woman who looks like them.”
Sojourner Truth’s Famous Oration: “Ain’t I a Woman?”
In 1851, Sojourner Truth gave her famous “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech before the Women’s Rights Convention held in Akron, Ohio. Several ministers were in attendance. Truth rose from her seat and spoke the following words before the audience:
“Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter. I think that ‘twixt the negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the White men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what’s all this here talking about?
That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman?
Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?
Then they talk about this thing in the head; what’s this they call it? [member of audience whispers, “intellect”] That’s it, honey. What’s that got to do with women’s rights or negroes’ rights? If my cup won’t hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn’t you be mean not to let me have my little half measure full?
Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.
If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.
Obliged to you for hearing me, and now old Sojourner ain’t got nothing more to say.”