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Sojourner Truth was born a slave in Ulster County, New York. Her masters at birth were the Hardenburgh family, descendents of Dutch “patroon” planters, and she was named Isabella Baumfree at birth. During her lifetime she was sold several times, married Thomas Dumont, another slave, and had at least four children with him. In 1827 New York freed all remaining slaves, but Isabella had already left her owners. After the abolition of slavery, she successfully sued her former owners to obtain the freedom of one of her children, whom they had transferred to Alabama.
The 1830s were a time of great religious ferment, called the Second Great Awakening. Isabella was caught up in the movement, and she traveled around the northeast and settled in several religious communes. It was about this time that she began calling herself Sojourner Truth and became an itinerant preacher.
In the 1840s she became active in the abolitionist movement, and she worked with many abolitionist leaders such as Frederick Douglass (1817-1895) and William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879). She was in great demand as a speaker, and her memoir The Narrative of Sojourner Truth, a Northern Slave, was dictated to and edited by abolitionist author Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896).
Sojourner Truth also became involved in women’s rights issues. Like many abolitionists, she saw a connection between the issues of women’s liberation and freedom for blacks. Her most famous speech, “Ain’t I A Woman?,” was delivered at a women’s rights conference in 1851. The speech was transcribed by another woman abolitionist, Frances Gage, who published it almost thirty years later. Gage’s text is the only record of Sojourner Truth’s oratorical style, and it is written in nonstandard English. It is unclear if that is really the way Sojourner Truth spoke. Contemporaries, both black and white, always described her as a riveting speaker, and nobody ever suggested that her English was poor or difficult to understand. Nonetheless, the speech as transcribed shows some of the power of Sojourner Truth’s oratory: the biblical or theological arguments mixed with homely, rural simile, the chatty tone, the repetition of “and ain’t I a woman?” and other rhetorical elements that have made this speech a classic of early feminism.
When the Civil War (1861-1865) broke out, Sojourner Truth worked for better conditions for blacks in the Union military and against segregation in northern cities. After the war she called for the establishment of a “Negro state” in the west. She also supported the Freedman’s Bureau and tried to help black war refugees and the newly freed people in the South find jobs and housing. She continued to work for women’s rights, civil rights for blacks, and temperance (laws restricting alcohol consumption) until her death in 1883.
Sojourner Truth is important because she helped set the terms of reference for the debate over slavery, civil rights for blacks after the Civil War, and women’s rights in the United States in the mid-nineteenth century. She is probably as important a figure as any of the other well-known abolitionists—Douglass, Garrison, Beecher Stowe—especially because as a black woman she has inherent credibility on both black and women’s issues. She is also important as an example of a little-appreciated phenomenon, the link between Protestant evangelical Christianity, abolitionism, and women’s liberation. It is important to realize that in the middle of the 1800s, evangelical Christians were more likely to be radicals than conservatives. Finally, she deserves attention because of her lively speaking style. There is a reason that she stood out as a speaker and sold many books in that era, so well provided with great speakers and writers.
- Painter, Nell Irvin. 1996. Sojourner Truth: A Life, a Symbol. New York: W. W. Norton.
- Truth, Sojourner. 1998. Narrative of Sojourner Truth. New York: Penguin Classics.
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