Sojourner Truth: America’s slave-turned-abolitionist
Sojourner Truth, born Isabella Baumfree, was an African-American evangelist known for her contributions to the abolitionist and women’s rights movements.
Truth was born in 1797 in New York as the daughter of James Baumfree and Elizabeth. Her parents were slaves. Together with her parents, she spent her childhood enslaved by several masters. Her first language was Dutch as she was enslaved by Dutch settlers.
When Truth was nine, she was sold away from her parents to John Neely near Kingston, New York. She was bought and sold four times. She was subjected to harsh physical labour and violent punishments.
In her teenage, she was united with a slave named Thomas. She bore five children to Thomas between 1810 and 1827. In 1827, just before New York abolished slavery, she ran away with her infant Sophia to the Van Wageners, an abolitionist family. Isaac Van Wagener set her free.
During her stay with the Van Wageners, Truth focused on finding her son Peter, who was sold illegally into slavery in the south. With the help of her hosts and Quaker friends, she waged a legal battle for Peter and finally court ruled in her favour.
In 1828, she moved to New York City, where she worked for a local minister. In the early 1830s, she started participating in religious revivals, and she became a charismatic speaker. In 1843, she said that she got a religious awakening and renamed herself Sojourner Truth.
During the American Civil War, Truth played an important part in organising supplies for Black troops.
Sojourner Truth started travelling frequently as a preacher. During these visits, she met abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass. Garrison was heading an anti-slavery organisation. He encouraged Truth to give speeches about the evils of slavery.
In 1850, Truth dictated her autobiography, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth, to Olive Gilbert, who assisted in its publication. She supported herself with the sales of the book, and it also got her national recognition. Truth also met women rights activists, including Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Lady Stanton. She started appearing before suffrage gatherings.
In 1851, Truth started a lecture tour. During that tour, she delivered her famous speech “Ain’t I a Woman?” in a women’s rights conference in Akron, Ohio. In that speech, she challenged all the existing notions of racial and gender inferiority and inequality. By that time, she split with abolitionist Frederick Douglass who believed that suffrage for formerly enslaved men should come before women’s suffrage. Truth was against this as she believed that both should occur simultaneously.
During the 1850s, Truth settled in Battle Creek, Michigan, where her three daughters lived. She continued speaking across the country and helped slaves attain freedom.
During the American Civil War, Truth played an important part in organising supplies for Black troops. She also urged young men to join the Union cause during the Civil War. In 1864, she was honoured with an invitation to the White House from President Abraham Lincoln. She accepted an appointment with the National Freedmen’s Relief Association to help freed slaves find jobs and build new lives. Truth also encouraged the migration of freedmen to Kansas and Missouri.
In 1875, Sojourner Truth retired to Battle Creek in Michigan where she spent the latter part of her life. She passed away on November 26, 1883.
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