Home

Black News and News Makers in History: Sojourner Truth

African American news - Black News and News Makers in History - recognizes Sojourner Truth this week in Black historySojourner Truth was born a slave on November 18, 1797, one of 13 children, to Elizabeth and James Baumfree who were slaves on a plantation owned by Colonel Johannes Hardenbergh in an upstate New York Dutch settlement. Her given name was Isabella Baumfree.

Upon the death of the Colonel, she was sold at age nine along with a herd of sheep to John Neely. She spoke only Dutch and was punished for not understanding English. Due to the extreme punishment, including being whipped with "a bundle of rods, prepared in the embers, and bound together with cords," she found refuge in religion and began the habit of praying aloud when scared or hurt. She also began to learn English. When her father once came to visit, she pleaded with him to help her. Soon after, Martinus Schryver purchased her for $105. He owned a tavern and, although the atmosphere was crude and morally questionable, it was a safer haven.

Within a short time, in 1810, she was sold again to John Dumont of New Paltz, New York and was subject to cruel treatment by Mrs. Dumont.  Sometime around 1815, she fell in love with Robert, a slave who was owned by a man named Catlin or Catton. Robert's owner forbade the relationship because he did not want his slave having children with a slave he did not own (and therefore would not own the new 'property'). One night visit from Robert was discovered by his owner and resulted in a severe beating. He never returned to visit even after Isabella had his daughter, Diana. In 1817, forced to submit to the will of her owner, Isabella married an older slave named Thomas. They had four children: Peter (1822), James (who died young), Elizabeth (1825), and Sophia (1826).

The state of New York legislated the gradual abolition of slaves, which was to happen July 4, 1827. Dumont had promised Isabella freedom a year before the state emancipation, "if she would do well and be faithful." However, he broke is promise, claiming a hand injury had made her less productive. She was infuriated, having understood fairness and duty as a hallmark of the master-slave relationship. She continued working until she felt she had done enough to satisfy her sense of obligation to him -- spinning 100 pounds of wool -- then escaped before dawn with her infant daughter, Sophia.

Isabella prayed for direction and arrived at the home of Isaac and Maria Van Wagenen. Soon after, Dumont arrived, insisting she come back and threatening to take her baby when she refused. Isaac offered to buy her services for the remainder of the year (until the state's emancipation took effect), which Dumont accepted for $20. Isaac and Maria insisted Isabella not call them "master" and "mistress," but rather by their given names.

Isabella immediately set to work retrieving her young son, Peter. He had recently been leased by Dumont to another slaveholder, who then illegally sold Peter to an owner in Alabama. Peter was five years old. First, she appealed to the Dumonts, then the other slaveholder, to no avail. A friend directed her to activist Quakers, who helped her make an official complaint in court. After months of legal proceedings, Peter returned to her, scarred and abused.

During her time with the Van Wagenens, Isabella had a life-changing religious experience -- becoming "overwhelmed with the greatness of the Divine presence" and inspired to preach. She began devotedly attending the local Methodist church and, in 1829, left Ulster County with a white evangelical teacher named Miss Gear. She quickly became known as a remarkable preacher whose influence "was miraculous."

She soon met Elijah Pierson, a religious reformer who advocated strict adherence to Old Testament laws for salvation. He led a small group of followers at his house, sometimes called the "Kingdom." Isabella became the group's housekeeper. Elijah treated her as a spiritual equal and encouraged her to preach. Soon after, Robert Matthias arrived, who apparently took over as the group's leader, with the activities becoming increasingly bizarre.

In 1834, Pierson died. The Folger family, whose house the group had moved into, accused Matthias and Isabella of stealing their money and poisoning Elijah. They were eventually acquitted and Matthias traveled west.

Isabella settled in New York City, but she had lost what savings and possessions she had. She resolved to leave and make her way as a traveling preacher.

On June 1, 1843, she changed her name to Sojourner Truth and told friends, "The Spirit calls me [East], and I must go." She wandered in relative obscurity, depending on the kindness of strangers.

In 1844, still liking the utopian cooperative ideal, she joined the Northampton Association of Education and Industry in Massachusetts. This group of 210 members lived on 500 acres of farmland, raising livestock, running grist and saw mills, and operating a silk factory. Unlike the Kingdom, the Association was founded by abolitionists to promote cooperative and productive labor. They were strongly anti-slavery, religiously tolerant, women's rights supporters, and pacifist in principles. While there, she met and worked with abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and David Ruggles. Unfortunately, the community's silk-making was not profitable enough to support itself and it disbanded in 1846 in debt.

Sojourner went to live with one of the Association's founders, George Benson, who had established a cotton mill. Shortly, she began dictating her memoirs to Olive Gilbert, another Association member. The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave was published privately by William Lloyd Garrison in 1850. It gave her an income and increased her speaking engagements, where she sold copies of the book. She spoke about anti-slavery and women's rights, often giving personal testimony about her experiences as a slave. That same year, 1850, Benson's cotton mill failed and he left Northampton. Sojourner bought a home there for $300.

In 1854, at the Ohio Woman's Rights Covention in Akron, Ohio, she gave her most famous speech -- with the legendary phrase, "Ain't I a Woman?"
Sojourner later became involved with the popular Spiritualism religious movement of the time, through a group called the Progressive Friends, an offshoot of the Quakers. The group believed in abolition, women's rights, non-violence, and communicating with spirits.

In 1857, she sold her home in Northampton and bought one in Harmonia, Michigan (just west of Battle Creek), to live with this community.

During the Civil War, she spoke on the Union's behalf, as well as for enlisting black troops for the cause and freeing slaves. She helped care for wounded soldiers and newly emancipated slaves as well.  Her grandson James Caldwell enlisted in the 54th Regiment, Massachusetts.

In 1863, Harriet Beecher Stowe's article "The Libyan Sibyl" appeared in the Atlantic Monthly; a romanticized description of Sojourner. (The previous year, William Story's statue of the same title, inspired by the article, won an award at the London World Exhibition.)

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. She also met President Abraham Lincoln in October urging him to call to arms the free Blacks of the North to fight for the Union. (A famous painting and subsequent photographs of it, depict President Lincoln showing Sojourner the 'Lincoln Bible,' given to him by the black people of Baltimore, Maryland.)

In 1865, while working at the Freedman's Hospital in Washington, she rode in the streetcars to help force their desegregation.

After the Civil War ended, she continued working to help the newly freed slaves through the Freedman's Relief Association, then the Freedman's Hospital in Washington.  She urged the freed men to seek land ownership and to obtain an education.  She also advocated rehabilitating former slaves on public lands.

In 1867, she moved from Harmonia to Battle Creek, converting William Merritt's "barn" into a house. 

In 1870, she began campaigning for the federal government to provide former slaves with land in the "new West." She pursued this for seven years, with little success.

In 1874, after touring with her grandson Sammy Banks, he fell ill and she developed ulcers on her leg. Sammy died after an operation. She was successfully treated by Dr. Orville Guiteau, veterinarian, and headed off on speaking tours again, but had to return home due to illness once more. She did continue touring as much as she could, still campaigning for free land for former slaves.

In 1879, Sojourner was delighted as many freed slaves began migrating west and north on their own, many settling in Kansas. She spent a year there helping refugees and speaking in white and black churches trying to gain support for the "Exodusters" as they tried to build new lives for themselves. This was to be her last mission.

Sojourner made a few appearances around Michigan, speaking about temperance and against capital punishment.

In July of 1883, with ulcers on her legs, she sought treatment through Dr. John Harvey Kellogg at his famous Battle Creek Sanitarium. Sojourner returned home with her daughters, Diana and Elizabeth, their husbands and children, and died there on November 26, 1883, at 86 years old. 

 In 1890, Frances Titus, who published the third edition of Sojourner's Narrative in 1875 and became Sojourner's traveling companion after Sammy died, collected money and erected a monument on the gravesite, inadvertently inscribing "aged about 105 years." She then commissioned artist Frank Courter to paint the meeting of Sojourner and President Lincoln.

Sojourner Truth, women’s rights advocate, poet, freedom fighter, Civil War heroine, and abolitionist, has been posthumously honored in many ways over the years:

  • a memorial stone in the Stone History Tower in Monument Park, downtown Battle Creek (1935);
  • a new grave marker, by the Sojourner Truth Memorial Association (1946);
  • a historical marker commemorating members of her family buried with her in the cemetery (1961);
  • a portion of Michigan State Highway M-66 designated the Sojourner Truth Memorial Highway (1976);
  • induction into the National Woman's Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York (1981);
  • induction into the Michigan Woman's Hall of Fame in Lansing (1983);
  • a commemorative postage stamp (1986);
  • a Michigan Milestone Marker by the State Bar of Michigan for her contribution (three lawsuits she won) to the legal system (1987);
  • a marker erected by the Battle Creek Club of the National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women's Clubs (also 1987);
  • a Mars probe named for her (1997);
  • a community-wide, year-long celebration of the 200th anniversary of her birth in Battle Creek in 1997, plus a larger-than-life statue of her by artist Tina Allen; and
  • the First Black Woman Honored with a Bust in the U.S. Capitol (October, 2008)

Compiled from http://www.lkwdpl.org/wihohio/trut-soj.htm and http://www.anothershadeofcolor.com.