Sojourner Truth: From Slave to Abolitionist
Sojourner Truth History
NAME: Isabella Baumfree
BIRTHPLACE: Ulster County,
DATE OF DEATH: November 26, 1883
PLACE OF DEATH: Battle Creek, Michigan
On June 1, 1843, Isabella Baumfree changed her name to Sojourner Truth
and told her friends, "The Spirit calls me, and I must go."
Sojourner Truth (1797–November 26, 1883) was an American abolitionist
and women's rights activist. Truth was born into slavery in Swartekill, New York. Her best-known speech, "Ain't I a Woman?",
was delivered in 1851 at the Ohio Women's Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio.
|Isabella Baumfree (Sojourner Truth)
|Sojourner Truth. Mathew Brady (ca. 1864)
FAMILY BACKGROUND: Sojourner
Truth was born in 1797 on the Colonel Johannes Hardenbergh estate in Swartekill, in Ulster County, a Dutch settlement in upstate
New York. Her given name was Isabella Baumfree (also spelled
Bomefree). She was one of 13 children born to Elizabeth and James Baumfree, also slaves on the Hardenbergh plantation. She
spoke only Dutch until she was sold from her family around the age of nine. Because of the cruel treatment she suffered at
the hands of a later master, she learned to speak English quickly, but had a Dutch accent for the rest of her life.
ACCOMPLISHMENTS: She was
first sold around age 9 when her second master (Charles Hardenbergh) died in 1808. She was sold to John Neely, along with
a herd of sheep, for $100. Neely's wife and family only spoke English and beat Isabella fiercely for the frequent miscommunications.
She later said that Neely once whipped her with "a bundle of rods, prepared in the embers, and bound together with cords."
It was during this time that she began to find refuge in religion -- beginning the habit of praying aloud when scared or hurt.
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 for Isabella.
But a year and a half later,
in 1810, she was sold again to John Dumont of New Paltz, New York.
Isabella suffered many hardships at the hands of Mrs. Dumont, whom Isabella later described as cruel and harsh. Although she
did not explain the reasons for this treatment in her later biography narrative, historians have surmised that the unspeakable
things might have been sexual abuse or harassment (see the biography on Harriet Jacobs, the only former slave to write about
such), or simply the daily humiliations that slaves endured.
|Abolitionist Sojourner Truth
|Sojourner Truth, circa 1870
Sometime around 1815, she
fell in love with a fellow slave named Robert, 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 Robert visited Isabella, but was followed by his owner and son, who beat him savagely ("bruising and mangling his
head and face"), bound him and dragged him away. Robert never returned. Isabella had a daughter shortly thereafter, named
Diana. In 1817, forced to submit to the will of her owner Dumont, 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 began in 1799 to legislate 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 reneged on his 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. She later said:
"I did not run off, for
I thought that wicked, but I walked off, believing that to be all right."
Isabella wandered, not sure
where she was going, and prayed for direction. She arrived at the home of Isaac and Maria Van Wagenen (Wagener?). 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. His house was sometimes called the
"Kingdom," where he led a small group of followers. Isabella became the group's housekeeper. Elijah treated her as a spiritual
equal and encouraged her to preach also. Soon after, Robert Matthias arrived, who apparently took over as the group's leader,
with the activities becoming increasingly bizarre. In 1834, Pierson died with only the group's members attending. His family
called the coroner and the group disbanded. The Folger family, whose house the group had moved into, accused Robert and Isabella
of stealing their money and poisoning Elijah. They were eventually acquitted and Robert traveled west.
Isabella settled in New York City, but she had lost what savings and possessions she had
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 amid debt.
Sojourner went to live with
one of the Association's founders, George Benson, who had established a cotton mill. Shortly thereafter, 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 Convention in Akron,
Ohio, she gave her most famous speech -- with the legendary phrase, "Ain't I
a Woman?" :
"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? ... I have plowed, 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 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.
In 1858, at a meeting in Silver Lake, Indiana,
someone in the audience accused her of being a man (she was very tall, towering around six feet) so she opened her blouse
to reveal her breasts.
During the Civil War, she
spoke on the Union's behalf, as well as for enlisting black troops for the cause and freeing
slaves. Her grandson James Caldwell enlisted in the 54th Regiment, Massachusetts.
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. (A famous painting, and
subsequent photographs of it, depicts President Lincoln showing Sojourner the 'Lincoln Bible,' given to him by the black people
of Baltimore, Maryland.)
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.) 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.
In 1867, she moved from Harmonia to Battle Creek, converting
William Merritt's "barn" into a house, for which he gave her the deed four years later.
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. It is said he grafted some of his own skin onto her leg. Sojourner returned home with her daughters Diana
and Elizabeth, their husbands and children, and died there on November 26, 1883, at 86 years old. She was buried in Oak Hill Cemetery
next to her grandson. 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.
(See related reading below.)
Source: Women in History. Sojourner Truth biography.
Last Updated: 1/25/2008. Lakewood Public Library. Date accessed
Reading: Sojourner Truth: A Life, a Symbol.
Description: Though she was born into slavery and subjected to physical and sexual abuse by her owners, Sojourner Truth, who
eventually fled the South for the promise of the North, came to represent the power of individual strength and perseverance.
She championed the disadvantaged--black in the South, women in the North--yet spent much of her free life with middle-class
whites, who supported her, yet never failed to remind her that she was a second class citizen. Slowly, but surely, Sojourner
climbed from beneath the weight of slavery, secured respect for herself, and utilized the distinction of her race to become
not only a symbol for black women, but for the feminist movement as a whole.
Recommended Viewing: Slavery and the Making of America (240 minutes),
Starring: Morgan Freeman; Director: William R. Grant. Description: Acclaimed actor Morgan Freeman narrates this compelling documentary, which features a score by Michael Whalen.
Underscoring how slavery impacted the growth of this country's Southern and Northern states; the series examines issues still
relevant today. The variety of cultures from which the slaves originated provided the budding states with a multitude of skills
that had a dramatic effect on the diverse communities. From joining the British in the Revolutionary War, to fleeing to Canada, to joining rebel communities in the U.S.
the slaves sought freedom in many ways, ultimately having a far-reaching effect on the new hemisphere they were forced to
inhabit. AWARDED 5 STARS by americancivilwarhistory.org
Reading: When I Was a Slave: Memoirs from the Slave Narrative Collection (Dover Thrift Editions). Description:
More than 2,000 interviews with former slaves, who, in blunt, simple language, provide often-startling first-person accounts
of their lives in bondage. Includes some of the most detailed, compelling, and engrossing life histories in the Slave Narrative
Collection, a project funded by the U.S. Government. An illuminating source of information.
Recommended Reading: The
Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics Publishers Weekly: The perennial
tension between principle and pragmatism in politics frames this engaging account of two Civil War Era icons. Historian Oakes
(Slavery and Freedom) charts the course by which Douglass and Lincoln, initially far apart on the antislavery spectrum, gravitated
toward each other. Lincoln began as a moderate who advocated banning slavery in the territories while tolerating it in the
South, rejected social equality for blacks and wanted to send freedmen overseas—and wound up abolishing slavery outright
and increasingly supporting black voting rights. Conversely, the abolitionist firebrand Douglass moved from an impatient,
self-marginalizing moral rectitude to a recognition of compromise, coalition building and incremental goals as necessary steps
forward in a democracy. Continued below...
views on race were essentially modern; the book is really a study through his eyes of the more complex figure of Lincoln.
Oakes lucidly explores how political realities and military necessity influenced Lincoln's
tortuous path to emancipation, and asks whether his often bigoted pronouncements represented real conviction or strategic
concessions to white racism. As Douglass shifts from denouncing Lincoln's foot-dragging to
revering his achievements, Oakes vividly conveys both the immense distance America
traveled to arrive at a more enlightened place and the fraught politics that brought it there. AWARDED FIVE STARS by americancivilwarhistory.org
Uncle Tom's Cabin (Wordsworth Classics),
by Harriet Beecher Stowe (Author). Description: Edited and with an Introduction and Notes by Dr Keith Carabine, University of Kent at Canterbury.
Uncle Tom's Cabin is the most popular, influential and controversial book written by an American. Stowe's rich, panoramic
novel passionately dramatizes why the whole of America
is implicated in and responsible for the sin of slavery, and resoundingly concludes that only 'repentance, justice and mercy'
will prevent the onset of 'the wrath of Almighty God!'.
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Truth, Abolitionist Sojourner Truth History, Sojourner Truth Photo and Picture, Sojourner Truth Biography, Accomplishments,
Achievements and Results, Women’s Rights Activist, Civil Rights Activist