Born into bondage in New York, escaped slave Sojourner Truth was a renowned champion for abolition, women's rights, temperance, and prison reform during the 19th Century.
Acclaimed abolitionist and women's rights supporter Sojourner Truth was born into slavery as Isabella Baumfree sometime between 1797 and 1800 in Ulster County, New York. She was the second youngest of James and Betsey Baumfree's ten to twelve children. Like the rest of her family, Isabella (also known as Belle) was the "property" of one Colonel Hardenbergh (Ardinburgh). As a youngster, she knew only about one half of her siblings because the rest were sold to other slaveholders before she was old enough to remember them.
Early in Baumfree's life, Colonel Hardenbergh died and left her family to his son Charles. When the son died in 1806, John Neely, who lived in Ulster County near Kingston, New York, acquired nine-year-old Baumfree at auction, along with a flock of sheep, for $100. Two years later, Martinus Schryver (Scriver), a fisherman and tavern owner who lived near Kingston, purchased Baumfree from Neely for $105. In 1810, John J. Dumont, from Ulster County, purchased Baumfree from Schryver. She remained in Dumont's service for sixteen years. During that time, in 1815, Dumont forced Baumfree to marry another slave named Thomas, and she subsequently gave birth to five children.
In 1826, Dumont reneged on his pledge to free Baumfree one year before the New York assembly mandated the emancipation of all slaves in the state. Dumont's failure to fulfill his promise prompted Baumfree to walk away from Dumont's farm carrying her infant daughter in January 1827. She left her other children behind because New York's impending manumission law bound them as servants until reaching their twenties.
After escaping from Dumont, Baumfree found refuge at the nearby farm of Isaac and Maria Van Wagenen in New Paltz. Dumont soon received word of her whereabouts and travelled to the Van Wagenen's home to retrieve her. When Van Wagenen refused to surrender Baumfree, the two men brokered an agreement for Van Wagenen to pay Dumont twenty dollars for Baumfree's services until the effective date of New York's mandated manumission. On July 4, 1827, the new law took effect and Baumfree became a free woman.
Baumfree remained with the Van Wagenens for roughly two years after her emancipation. During that time, she converted to Christianity. Like many Americans of the period, she was swept up by the Second Great Awakening, a 19th Century revivalist movement aimed at redressing the evils of society before the anticipated second coming of Jesus Christ.
Baumfree's newly-found religious fervor prompted her to move to New York City with her son, Peter, in 1829. Now known as Isabella Van Wagenen, she worked as a domestic housekeeper for a wealthy religious zealot named Elijah Pierson. Three years later, she and Pierson came under the influence of Robert Matthews, also known as Prophet Matthias, the leader of a religious cult named the Kingdom of Matthias. When Pierson died unexpectedly on July 28, 1834, authorities charged Matthews and Van Wagenen with poisoning him. In the subsequent trial, they were acquitted of the murder charges, but Matthews was convicted of lesser charges and fled the state.
1843 was a turning point for Van Wagenen. She joined the Methodist Church, and on June 1, she changed her name to Sojourner Truth. After telling friends that "The Spirit calls me, and I must go," she became an itinerant preacher traveling about espousing the abolition of slavery.
In 1844, Truth joined the Northampton Association of Education and Industry, a communal society in Massachusetts that promoted equality and justice. While living with the utopian group, she met other influential progressives of the period including William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Frederick Douglass, and David Ruggles. Impressed by Truth's powerful oratorical skills, these reformers encouraged her to begin sharing the accounts of her past at abolitionist meetings in the northeast. Gradually, her reputation grew to rival the notoriety of other escaped slaves who publicly exhorted the evils of slavery, such as Douglass and Harriet Tubman. When the Northampton community foundered in 1845, Truth joined the household of George Benson, William Lloyd Garrison's brother-in-law.
Unlike Douglass, who was an accomplished wordsmith, Truth never learned to read or write. Thus, when she resolved to commit her memoirs to paper, she dictated the accounts of her life to Olive Gilbert. Garrison assisted with the printing of the resulting manuscript, which was first published in 1850 as the Narrative of Sojourner Truth, a Northern Slave, Emancipated from Bodily Servitude by the State of New York, in 1828. During the 1870s, Truth’s friend and informal manager Frances Titus released a second edition of the book, adding the “Book of Life,” a collection of essays, articles, and letters from Truth’s admirers. In 1884, the year after Truth's death, Titus published a final edition that included “A Memorial Chapter.”
The first edition of Truth's Narrative sold well enough for Truth to purchase a home of her own at 35 Park Street in Northampton. By 1854, proceeds from the work enabled her to pay off the mortgage. Truth's growing acclaim and expanding interests, however, did not allow her to spend much time in her new home. In 1851, she embarked on a lecture tour across Ohio that increasingly blended her abolitionist sentiments with a newfound passion for women's rights. On May 29, while attending the Ohio Women's Rights Convention in Akron, she delivered her now-legendary speech demanding equal human rights for women as well as for blacks. While making the point that African-American women were generally treated differently than white women several times during the course of her remarks, Truth allegedly asked the crowd in a rhetorical manner, "Ain't I a Woman?"
Truth's "Ain't I a Woman" speech was one of the more memorable orations in American history, but it is questionable if she ever uttered the phrase during her remarks. On June 21, 1851, two days after the event, Marius Robinson, an abolitionist and newspaper editor who served as the convention's recording secretary, published a transcription of the speech in his abolitionist newspaper, the Anti-Slavery Bugle. Robinson's rendition did not include the question, "Ain't I a Woman?,” nor did any other newspaper accounts at the time. Twelve years later, however, in May 1863, Frances Dana Gage, who was one of the Akron event's organizers, published a different transcription. In Gage's version, Truth repeated the question numerous times. Gage's recollection was subsequently republished several times and gradually became the commonly accepted version.
Truth's involvement in the struggle for female equity earned her an invitation to speak at the first annual Woman's Rights Convention in Worcester, Massachusetts, on October 23, 1851. As a result, she later became cohorts with notable women's rights luminaries such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.
In 1856, Truth travelled to Battle Creek, Michigan, where she addressed the Friends of Human Progress, a radical Quaker group. A year later, she purchased a home in nearby Harmonia, a small Spiritualist community, and relocated to Michigan. Residing in Harmonia for the next decade, Truth supported herself with stipends from her speaking engagements, and proceeds from the sales of her memoirs.
During the Civil War, Truth scoured Michigan recruiting black soldiers for the Union and collecting food and clothing to sustain them after they marched off to battle. In 1864, she journeyed to Washington, D.C., where she visited President Abraham Lincoln in the White House on October 29. Afterwards, she stayed in the area and obtained employment at the Freedman's Hospital. On December 1, 1864, she received an appointment as counselor with the National Freedman's Relief Association.
After the Civil War, Truth lived at Freedman's Village from January to June 1865. Established by the army in 1863 on the grounds of Arlington, Robert E. Lee's former estate, Freedman's Village was originally a temporary refuge for freed slaves. During her stay, Truth counseled residents on how to assimilate into American society.
Truth's duties with the Freedman's Hospital required her to travel into Washington from the Freedman's Village. In 1865, District of Columbia authorities enacted legislation desegregating public transportation in the city. Nonetheless, white streetcar conductors often ignored the law and refused to allow black passengers to board their vehicles. Undaunted, Truth jumped aboard stationary streetcars whenever opportunities were available. On one occasion, a conductor dislocated Truth's arm while trying to forcibly remove her from his tram. In return, Truth initiated a successful lawsuit that cost the conductor his job and prompted the streetcar company to enforce the desegregation decree.
In 1867, Truth returned to Michigan. She sold her house in Harmonia and moved to Battle Creek, converting the Merritt barn on College Street into her new home. For the next sixteen years she continued to travel extensively throughout the country promoting equality for blacks, women's rights, universal suffrage, and prison reform.
Possibly the greatest disappointment of her final years was her inability to convince the federal government to provide former slaves with free homesteads in the West so that they could become self-supporting. Despite collecting thousands of signatures on a petition that she personally presented to President Ulysses S. Grant in 1870, Congress never seriously considered the proposal. Nevertheless, when a large contingent of freedmen migrated to Kansas in 1879, she travelled there to help them settle, despite her advanced age.
In 1883, Truth's age and grueling life caught up with her. She died at her home in Battle Creek on November 26 of unreported causes. Two days later, following an elaborate funeral, Truth was buried at Oak Hill Cemetery in Battle Creek. Her grave marker lists Truth's age as "about 105 years," but her actual age at the time of her death was more likely shy of ninety years.
More than a century after her death, in 2009, Truth became the first black woman honored with a bust in the U.S. Capitol. Five years later, the Smithsonian Institution listed her as one of the 100 most significant individuals in American history.
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