Born into slavery, Sojourner Truth was a remarkable woman who threw off the shackles of oppression to become a leader in social reform in a time when any woman, let alone a black woman, had no business making a public statement.
Named Isabella Baumfree when she was born near Kingston, New York in approximately 1797, she was taken from her family and sold at auction along with a herd of sheep when she was nine years old. She later recalled that her new owner was a brutal and violent man. Over the next two years, the girl, who was called Belle, would be sold twice more; her last owner was a man named John Dumont, who lived in West Park, New York.
It was there that she fell in love with a slave from a neighboring farm and had a daughter, whom she named Diana. But slave owners did not consider the feelings of their property, and marriages were arranged by the masters, who chose who they would be with. The owner of the child’s father forbade him to see her again and the relationship ended. In 1817, Dumont selected an older slave named Thomas to be her husband, and they had three children together, a son named Peter, and two daughters, named Elizabeth and Sophia.
The union was not a happy one, and Belle began to chafe at living under the institution of slavery. She made an arrangement with her master to earn her freedom, but when he reneged on their deal and refused to free her, Belle took her daughter Sophia and escaped in 1826.
The state of New York emancipated all slaves on July 4, 1827, and soon afterward, Truth learned that her former master, John Dumont, had illegally sold her five year old son Peter to someone in Alabama. Truth filed a lawsuit and eventually secured her son’s release and return to New York. It was one of the first cases in which a black woman successfully won a case against a white man in a United States court.
She moved to New York City and worked as a domestic servant for Christian evangelist Elijah Pierson and became a Christian under his influence. In 1843, she changed her name to Sojourner Truth and began working toward the abolition of slavery nationwide.
In 1844, Truth joined the Northampton Association of Education and Industry in Northampton, Massachusetts. The organization was founded by abolitionists and worked toward a reform agenda that included ending slavery, promoting women’s rights, and pacifism. The members lived together in a self-sufficient communal style on 500 acres at Northampton. Although the community disbanded within a few years, her time with them further strengthened Truth’s commitment to the causes she believed in.
She became involved in the Underground Railroad in Florence, Massachusetts, where she lived for many years, and she was instrumental in helping many escaped slaves find refuge among the abolitionist community.
Speaking at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in 1851, she delivered her famous Ain’t I a Woman? speech on racial inequality. Later that year, Truth spoke at the first National Women’s Rights Convention in Worcester, Massachusetts, and her memoir The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave began to make her well-known nationwide, along with Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, both escaped slaves like herself. She began touring major cities in the northern part of the country, speaking before large groups on the subjects of slavery and human rights. Her audiences were enthralled with her message. Eventually, her fame led Truth to a meeting with President Abraham Lincoln, where she shared her beliefs and her experience as a slave.
During the Civil War, Truth helped to recruit black troops for the Union Army, even encouraging her grandson, James Caldwell, to enlist in the 54th Massachusetts Regiment. In 1864 she was invited to Washington, D.C., to work with the National Freedman’s Relief Association.
The end of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery was no reason for Truth to retire. All of her life she continued to work for social reform. In 1865, she tried to force the desegregation of streetcars in Washington by riding in cars designated for whites. She believed that ownership of their own land would give African-Americans self-sufficiency and put an end to the system that had sprung up after the war, where the same wealthy landowners controlled the lives of black tenant farmers, almost a form of slavery in its own right. Most of her later life was devoted to a movement to secure land grants from the United States government for former slaves, but this would be a cause she would never accomplish.
For as long as she lived, Truth continued to advocate passionately on the things she believed in; women’s rights, universal suffrage, and prison reform. Though she was always controversial and a frequent thorn in the sides of those she opposed, Truth was a close friend to such well-known reformers as Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, Amy Post, Wendell Phillips, and William Lloyd Garrison.
Late in life, Sojourner Truth moved to Battle Creek, Michigan, where she died at her home on November 26, 1883. She is buried alongside her family at Battle Creek’s Oak Hill Cemetery.
While the woman who dedicated her life to fighting for the things she believed in may be gone, Sojourner Truth’s legacy lives on. American men and women of all colors who live free today owe her a debt of gratitude. A statue of the famed abolitionist stands near her former home in Florence, Massachusetts, and a 12-foot high sculpture of Sojourner Truth was dedicated in 1999, in Battle Creek, Michigan. Both are reminders that it doesn’t matter where we start our lives, it is the path we chose to take from there and what we do along the way that matters.
Thought For The Day – The older I get, the earlier it gets late.