Sojourner Truth

Born into slavery, sometime around 1797, as Isabella Baumfree, she was next to the youngest of maybe twelve children. Her parents were James and Betsy, the property of Col. Johannes, from Holland, and living in Ulster County, New York.

As a teen she was sold to John J. Dumont, who was not a kind slave owner. Belle was forced to marry another slave by the name of Thomas. Together they had five children. The youngest is rumored to have died, while the rest were sold away.

In 1827, she escaped from Dumont and was taken in by a Quaker family named Van Wagener. There she was treated kindly and she thrived. While living with the Van Wageners she was able to sue for custody of her son Peter, who was illegally sold to an Alabama plantation. She won the lawsuit, making her the first black woman to sue a white man and win.

 

 

It was sometime around 1843, that Belle completely transformed herself. She did housework for a living and attended both The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, and a white Methodist Church.

In her own words, "God revealed himself... with all the suddeness of a flash of lightning showing her...that He pervaded the universe.... and that there was no place where God was not."

It was then that she received a calling from God to preach, and it was then that she took the name "Sojourner Truth."

By December of 1843, she joined the Northampton Association, a white utopian community in Florence, Massachusetts. It was there that she began speaking on social reform, as well as religious salvation. Truth insisted on the need to include black and working women in any vision of social reform. She earned a reputation for oratorical power and a ready wit. She spoke proudly of her own strength and accomplishments, and by implication, those of all women.

Truth was a very tall (perhaps six feet) woman with a masculine voice. She also possessed a very powerful singing voice, and she sang whenever she spoke to crowds. As a speaker, Sojourner Truth became known for her quick wit and powerful presence. She would never be intimidated. Because of her powerful speaking ability, independent spirit and her six foot frame, she was often accused of being a man. She ended that in Silver Lake, Indiana when she exposed her breast to the audience that accused her.

 

In a letter written by Henry B. Graves, dated Dec. 30, 1939 he wrote of her: "Although illiterate, she possessed a keen mind and ready wit. She was a most impressive speaker, especially when dwelling on the wrongs and aspirations of her race. I can see her now addressing an attentive audience and extending a long bony forefinger to emphasize her points."

It is rarely discussed, but Sojourner Truth fought for the desegregation of public transportation in Washington, DC during the Civil War. She refused to face the indignities of Jim Crow segregation on street cars and had the Jim Crow car removed from the Washington D. C. system. Sojourner Truth bought a local street to a standstill when a driver refused her passage. With the support of the crowd she forced the driver to carry her. During her legendary life, she challenged injustice wherever she saw it. She was an abolitionist, women's rights activist and preacher.

 

Sojourner Truth is best remembered for a speech she gave at a women's rights conference where she noticed that no one was addressing the rights of black women. Her address reads in part:

"Dat man ober dar say dat womin needs to be helped over carriages, and lifted ober dicthes and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody eber helps me into carriages, or ober muddpuddles, or bigs me any best place. And Aint I a woman? Look at me Looka at me arm. I have ploughes and planted and gathered into barns, and no mand could head me! And aint I a woman."

 

From 1864 to 1868 she worked with the National Freedman's Relief Association and the federal Freedman's Bureau. She also participated in the American Woman Suffrage Association. During this time she was received in the White House by Abe Lincoln. The first black woman to acquire this honor.

 

Photo of a painting of Lincoln showing Truth a bible presented to him by Colored People of Baltimore, in executive mansion, Washington D.C. Oct. 29, 1864.


Truth lived with her daughter in Battle Creek, Michigan until her death in November 1883. The last honor she received was having the Mars Pathfinder microrover named after her in 1995.

 

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Created:3/30/97 Updated: 04/04/01