As a girl, I recall hearing the name Sojourner Truth (c.1797-1883) as often as I heard Harriet Tubman, Ella Fitzgerald and Angela Davis. These days, not so much. This is a shame because Ms. Truth was the very essence of strength and resilience. An outspoken abolitionist who supported herself through speaking engagements and self-portrait sales, this hero championed the causes of civil rights, women’s suffrage, pacifism, prison reform, death penalty opposition and Black land ownership long before these ideas were popular with progressive leaders of the time.
“Truth is powerful and it prevails.”- Sojourner Truth
Sojourner Truth was born Isabella Baumfree in Ulster County, NY to an enslaved Ghanaian father and Guinean mother. Born a slave herself, it is estimated that her birth year was 1797 since such births were typically not recorded. Until the age of 11, Ms. Truth spoke nothing but Dutch and could neither read nor write though she would eventually publish and live off the proceeds from the sale of her 1950 memoir, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave.
Over the next 29 years, Ms. Truth would be sold three different times, marry, and bear several children. Despite New York’s abolition of slavery in 1827 and her owners’ promises to free her, Ms. Truth waited no longer and walked to freedom with her infant daughter in 1826. Shortly after her escape, her son was illegally sold to a slaveholder in Alabama. Seeking to get her son back, Ms. Truth filed a lawsuit against the slaveholder and won. She was one of the first Black women in history to bring a successful suit against a White person. Over the course of her life, she would file suits in two more cases (one for slander in New York City and one for personal injury in Washington D.C.) and win those as well.
With her newfound freedom, she officially changed her name to Sojourner Truth, adopted Methodism and became a street corner preacher. It was a smart career move because Ms. Truth stood six feet tall and possessed both a commanding presence and charismatic oratorical abilities. She also took up the cause of abolitionism and joined the Northampton Association of Education and Industry where she encountered William Lloyd Garrison, David Ruggles and Frederick Douglass.
She quickly became a speaking sensation and perhaps the most famous Black woman of the 19th century as she toured around the East Coast speaking about slavery and human rights at such events as the National Women’s Rights Convention in Worcester, MA and the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, OH. It was at the Ohio event that she gave her famous impromptu “Ain’t I A Woman” speech though it is highly unlikely that she ever actually said the words “Ain’t I A Woman” at any point in that speech. Remember, she spoke English with a Dutch accent and grew up in the North where she would not have used such a word as “ain’t.” The content of that speech is as follows:
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 of 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! Look at me! Look at my arm! I could have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! I could work as much and eat as much as a man- when I could get it- and bear the lash as well! I have borne thirteen children, and seen them most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! Then they talk about this thing in the head; what’s this they call it? [Intellect, somebody whispers] That’s it, honey. What’s that got to do with women’s rights or Negro’s 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 are asking to do it, the men better let them. Obliged to you for hearing me, and now old Sojourner has nothing more to say.
In 1856, Ms. Truth settled in Battle Creek, Michigan where she helped recruit Blacks for the Civil War and raised food and clothing donations to support Black regiments. In the early 1860s, she went to Washington DC to assist with the large influx of Blacks from the South by contributing to the National Freedman’s Relief Association. She also managed to meet and speak with President Abraham Lincoln regarding her views on abolition and civil rights. Always ready and willing to buck authority, Ms. Truth attempted to win integration of DC streetcars by purposefully riding on cars designated for Whites. And though she was unable to sway Congress, she constantly petitioned members for federal land grant for former slaves so that they would not be reliant on indentured servitude to make a living.
Until her death in 1883, Sojourner Truth continued to speak vigorously on universal suffrage, prison reform and women’s rights.