Sojourner Truth, born Isabella Baumfree, became an abolitionist and a women’s rights activist after being born into slavery. She was one of twelve children born to Elizabeth and James Baumfree in Ulster County, New York, in the town of Swartekill. As was typical of children born into slavery at the time, Truth’s birthdate was not recorded, however historians say she was born in the year of 1797.
The family was owned by Colonel Hardenburgh and lived at the colonel’s estate in New York, almost a hundred miles north of New York City, in a town called Esopus. This area was under control of the Dutch at one time, so the Hardenburhg’s and the Baumfree family spoke Dutch. After the colonel died, ownership of the Baumfree family passed to his son and when the son died, the family was separated in 1806.
Isabella Baumfree, then just known as Belle, was sold for one hundred dollars along with a flock of sheep to a man named John Neely. Sojourner Truth remembered him as being a harsh and violent man. She was not with him very long as she was sold two more times over the next two years and was finally sold to a man named John Dumont. It was with him that Baumfree learned to speak English for the first time.
Sometime around 1815, Isabella Baumfree had fallen in love with Robert, a slave from a neighboring farm and was allowed to marry him and a daughter was soon born. However, when Robert’s owner found out that the daughter and any future children would become the property of John Dumont, he forbade Robert from seeing her again. In 1817, Dumont made Sojourner Truth marry an older slave named Thomas. Their relationship produced a son named Peter and two daughters named Elizabeth and Sophia.
On July 4th, 1827, the state of New York had emancipated all slaves and a year before that, Sojourner Truth escaped from her owner because he went back on a promise to emancipate her. Truth escaped with her daughter Sophia and left her other daughter and her son behind. When she found out that her son Peter was illegally sold to a slave owner in Alabama, Sojourner Truth went to court and was eventually able to get her son back. This was the first case in which a black woman took a white man to court and won her case.
It wasn’t until 1843, that Isabella Baumfree had changed her name to Sojourner Truth and devoted her life to Christianity in the Methodist religion and to the abolition of slavery. A year later she joined the Northampton Association of Education and Industry in Northampton, Massachusetts. The association was founded by abolitionists and supported a broad reform program including women’s rights. It was here at Northampton that Sojourner Truth met leading abolitionists such as David Ruggles, William Lloyd Garrison, and Fredrick Douglass. The organization disbanded in 1846 but Sojourner Truth kept on with her agenda.
In 1850, Sojourner Truth published her memoirs under the title of The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave. William Lloyd Garrison wrote the preface for the book. It was the same year that Sojourner Truth spoke at the first National Women’s Rights Convention in Worcester, Massachusetts. She soon began touring regularly with another abolitionist named George Thompson and spoke to large crowds on the subjects of human rights and slavery.
In May of 1851, Sojourner Truth gave a famous speech at the Ohio Women’s Convention. The speech now known as “Ain’t I A Woman?”speech. Sojourner Truth spent the rest of her life speaking on women’s rights, slavery, and even prison reform. She passed away at her home in Battle Creek, Michigan in 1883 and is buried in the Oak Hill Cemetery in Battle Creek.
Sojourner Truth will always be remembered as a leader in the abolition movement and an important cog in the machine of women’s rights.
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