By Amelia E. Clark
Graduate Student, Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University
Isabella Baumfree was born around 1797 in upstate New York. When slavery was abolished in New York State in 1827 Isabella was set free. Her newfound freedom was to be a life of service that she dedicated to her people and to the rights of women. Later in life, Isabella would change her name to Sojourner Truth, a fitting name for an ex-slave who crusaded for abolition and women's rights. While her petition for abolition was an ongoing battle, Truth is probably best known for her speech entitled "Ain't I a Woman?" delivered at the 1851 Women's Rights Convention in Ohio.
Isabella was born into slavery around 1797. Isabella's parents were slaves, and had ten to thirteen children (the actual number is unknown). People of Dutch descent settled Ulster County in upstate New York. Due to the heavy Dutch influence in the area, Isabella's first language was Dutch.
Isabella was eventually sold to John Dumont. She was a slave for Dumont during from 1810 to the mid-1820s. While a slave for Dumont, Isabella bore five children with her husband, Thomas, a fellow slave. Before the state of New York abolished slavery, Isabella escaped Dumont, and was taken in by Martha and Isaac Van Wagener, a Quaker family. Isabella took Van Wagener as her proper name.
Most of her children were sold into slavery at different times. Isabella took her youngest daughter, Sophia, with her when she escaped. Her youngest son, Peter, was illegally sold into slavery. Around 1826/1827, Isabella petitioned the courts in Kingston, New York for her son's return. The Van Wagener and other Quaker families assisted Isabella in her court battle. Isabella's son was recovered and came to live with his mother. Around 1829, single-mother Isabella Van Wagener and her son left upstate New York to work in New York City. Isabella worked as a servant for various families during this time. While Isabella worked, she often sang and preached.
During the early 1830s, Isabella was linked with two churches, the John Street Methodist Church and the Black African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. Through church, Isabella was introduced to the Magdalene society, a mission to prostitutes. While volunteering with the Magdalene mission, Isabella met Elijah Pierson.Elijah Pierson was a passionate missionary who worked and preached in the streets of New York City. Isabella took to Pierson's teachings, and eventually joined his Retrenchment Society. During this time, Isabella began devoting her time to preaching. Pierson founded a commune in Sing Sing, New York for his followers. During 1832-1835, Isabella lived in Pierson's commune. Pierson's teachings emphasized temperance, and the casting out of evil spirits. Followers of Pierson adhered to a strict diet of fruits and vegetables and abstained from alcohol. In 1835, Pierson's commune disbanded. After leaving the commune, Isabella returned to New York City and engaged in household work.
Around 1843, Isabella began following William Miller. William Miller was a prominent figure in the Millenarian Movement. The Millenarian Movement believed that the world would end in 1843. Followers of this movement are referred to as Millerites. In light of this movement, on June 1, 1843 Isabella changed her name to Sojourner Truth. Sojourner Truth means "itinerant preacher" (Hine, 1175). When Isabella became Sojourner Truth, she began traveling the east coast preaching in the streets. In December of 1843, the Millerites realized that the world was not going to end, but Sojourner Truth remained active preaching about God and about her experience as a slave. With the fall of the Millerites, Truth became active in another association, the Northampton Association.
The Northampton Association was an association of more affluent people who were interested in the "cooperative manufacture of silk" (Hine, 1175). The association also entertained the liberal notions of equality and women's suffrage. During her time with the association, Truth began focusing her speeches on abolition and women's rights. The Northampton Association was located in present-day Florence, Massachusetts. The association broke up in 1846 but, instead of moving, Truth made Florence her home until 1856.
In 1851, at the Women's Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, Truth made her most famous speech entitled "Ain't I a Woman?" While there is no official account of her speech, Frances Dana Gage wrote down what she remembered from Truth's speech. (All accounts of this speech are questionable. As there was no specific recorder of the speech, each account varies. Gifts of Speech, a program sponsored by Sweet Briar College, provides speeches made by influential contemporary women. The following account of the speech is from the Gifts of Speech Web Site.)
For a thorough discussion of this period of Sojourner Truth's life, see Darlene Clark Hine, ed. Black Women in America Volume II M-Z. New York: Carlson Publishing, 1993.
Ain't I a Women?
By Sojourner Truth
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.
Sojourner Truth, 1851
Even though Truth was a fiery speaker and advocate, she remained illiterate throughout her life. Truth never had the privilege of a formal education. During the 1840s, Truth dictated her autobiography. In 1850, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth was published. Truth dictated her thoughts to Olive Gilbert, who in turn recorded and published the Narrative.
Word of Truth's speeches traveled fast. Truth drew large crowds, who she would inspire to listen to the word of God and about the equality of all individuals. Besides her radical (at that time) speeches, Truth also drew a crowd because of her unique physical appearance. Truth is described as a woman who was very tall (between 5 feet 11 inches and 6 feet) and who possessed a very deep masculine voice. Truth was often accused of being a man dressed in women's clothes. Once, in 1858 when she was speaking in Silver Lake, Indiana, she showed her breasts to the audience in order to show them that she was in fact a woman.
In 1864, Sojourner Truth was invited to Washington D.C. to speak to president Abraham Lincoln. While in Washington D.C., Truth fought for the desegregation of streetcars in the city. Another endeavor included pressing the government to give freed slaves land in western states such as Missouri and Kansas. Although she fought hard for the land issue, the government did not support her idea.
Truth remained active, giving speeches and campaigning for the rights of all, until her death. Sojourner Truth died November 26, 1883 in Battle Creek, Michigan, the city that had been her home for the last 27 years of her life.
Sojourner Truth dedicated her entire life to the overall betterment of society through the abolition of slavery, and to women's rights issues. Though she was already free, she was a tireless volunteer who used the resources of her mind and spirit, as well as her immense rhetorical abilities, to further these causes. She was also an active fundraiser. When the Civil War began, Truth preached and lectured in order to raise money for Union soldiers. Besides raising the money to purchase supplies, she personally distributed the goods to soldiers. Truth also assisted escaped and freed slaves who came to the north to find work, food, and shelter.
Key Related Ideas
- Women's Rights
- Women's Suffrage Movement
Important People Related to the Topic
- Frederic Douglass
- Harriett Beecher Stowe
- Elijah Pierson
- Harriett Tubman
Important Related Nonprofit Organizations
The Sojourner Truth Institute in Battle Creek, Michigan is a part of the Battle Creek Community Foundation. The foundation hopes to, "expand the historical and biographical knowledge of her life's work and carry on her mission by teaching, demonstrating and promoting projects that accentuate the ideals and principles for which she stood" (Sojourner Truth Institute).
Bright Moments: The Internet African American History Challenge. Sojourner Truth [online]. Available: www.brightmoments.com/blackhistory/.
Gifts of Speech, Women's Speeches from Around the World. Ain't I a Woman? [online]. Available: http://gos.sbc.edu/t/truth.html.
Hine, Darlene Clark, ed. Black Women in America Volume II M-Z. New York: Carlson Publishing, 1993
Painter, Nell Irvin. Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1996.
Sojourner Truth Institute [online]. Available: www.sojournertruth.org.
White, Deborah Gray. Ain't I a Woman: Female Slaves in the Plantation South. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1985.
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