One of the greatest historic figures in America is clearly
Sojourner Truth. She spoke not only for the freedom of
African Americans and African American women, but she also spoke for the
freedom of all women. The issues she raised which certainly impacted the
African American community most directly, were really universal issues of
freedom and control of oneself and one’s body and one’s life.
Here is a brief excerpt from the Wikipedia article detailing her life and
legacy. We can see that her work is not yet done. All of
humankind still deals with the indignities of racism, subjugation
of women and the inequities which the history of slavery in
America so clearly demonstrates.
Sojourner Truth (born Isabella [Belle] Baumfree; c. 1797–
November 26, 1883) was an African American abolitionist and
women’s rights activist. Truth was born into slavery in
Swartekill, Ulster County, New York, but escaped with her infant
daughter to freedom in 1826. After going to court to recover her son in
1828, she became the first black woman to win such a case against a white
She gave herself the name Sojourner Truth in 1843 after she became
convinced that God had called her to leave the city and go into the
countryside “testifying the hope that was in her”. Her best-known speech
was delivered extemporaneously, in 1851, at the Ohio Women’s Rights
Convention in Akron, Ohio. The speech became widely known during the
Civil War by the title “Ain’t I a Woman?,” a variation of the original speech
re-written by someone else using a stereotypical Southern dialect; whereas
Sojourner Truth was from New York and grew up speaking Dutch as her first
language. During the Civil War, Truth helped recruit black troops for the
Union Army; after the war, she tried unsuccessfully to secure land grants
from the federal government for former slaves (summarized as the promise
of Forty acres and a mule).
In 2014, Truth was included in Smithsonian magazine’s list of the “100
Most Significant Americans of All Time”.
Truth was one of the 10 or 12 children born to James and Elizabeth
Baumfree (or Bomefree). Colonel Hardenbergh bought James and Elizabeth
Baumfree from slave traders and kept their family at his estate in a big hilly
area called by the Dutch name Swartekill (just north of present-day Rifton),
in the town of Esopus, New York, 95 miles (153 km) north of New York City.
Charles Hardenbergh inherited his father’s estate and continued to enslave
people as a part of that estate’s property.
When Charles Hardenbergh died in 1806, nine-year-old Truth (known as
Belle), was sold at an auction with a flock of sheep for $100 to John Neely,
near Kingston, New York. Until that time, Truth spoke only Dutch. She later
described Neely as cruel and harsh, relating how he beat her daily and once
even with a bundle of rods. Neely sold her in 1808, for $105, to Martinus
Schryver of Port Ewen, a tavern keeper, who owned her for 18 months.
Schryver sold her in 1810 to John Dumont of West Park, New York. Although
this fourth owner was kindly disposed toward her, considerable tension
existed between Truth and Dumont’s wife, Elizabeth Waring Dumont, who
harassed her and made her life more difficult.
In around 1815, Truth met and fell in love with an enslaved man named
Robert from a neighboring farm. Robert’s owner (Charles Catton, Jr., a
Diversity—Cindy Goldberg, Co-Chair landscape painter) forbade their relationship; he did not want the people he enslaved to have children with people he was not
enslaving, because he would not own the children. One day
Robert sneaked over to see Truth. When Catton and his son found
him, they savagely beat Robert until Dumont finally intervened.
Truth never saw Robert again after that day and he died a few
years later. The experience haunted Truth throughout her life.
Truth eventually married an older enslaved man named Thomas.
She bore five children: James, her firstborn, who died in
childhood, Diana (1815), the result of a rape by either Robert or
John Dumont, and Peter (1821), Elizabeth (1825), and Sophia (ca.
1826), all born after she and Thomas united.
In 1799, the state of New York began to legislate the abolition
of slavery, although the process of emancipating those people
enslaved in New York was not complete until July 4, 1827. Dumont
had promised to grant Truth her freedom a year before the state
emancipation, “if she would do well and be faithful.” However, he
changed his mind, claiming a hand injury had made her less
productive. She was infuriated but continued working, spinning
100 pounds of wool, to satisfy her sense of obligation to him.
Late in 1826, Truth escaped to freedom with her infant
daughter, Sophia. She had to leave her other children behind
because they were not legally freed in the emancipation order
until they had served as bound servants into their twenties. She
later said “I did not run off, for I thought that wicked, but I walked
off, believing that to be all right.”
She found her way to the home of Isaac and Maria Van
Wagenen in New Paltz, who took her and her baby in. Isaac
offered to buy her services for the remainder of the year (until the
state’s emancipation took effect), which Dumont accepted for
$20. She lived there until the New York State Emancipation Act
was approved a year later.
Truth learned that her son Peter, then five years old, had been
sold illegally by Dumont to an owner in Alabama. With the help of
the Van Wagenens, she took the issue to court and in 1828, after
months of legal proceedings, she got back her son, who had been
abused by those who were enslaving him. Truth became one of
the first black women to go to court against a white man and win
Truth had a life-changing religious experience during her stay
with the Van Wagenens, and became a devout Christian. In 1829
she moved with her son Peter to New York City, where she
worked as a housekeeper for Elijah Pierson, a Christian evangelist.
While in New York, she befriended Mary Simpson, a grocer on
John Street who claimed she had once been enslaved by George
Washington. They shared an interest in charity for the poor and
became intimate friends. In 1832, she met Robert Matthews, also
known as Prophet Matthias, and went to work for him as a
housekeeper at the Matthias Kingdom communal colony. Elijah
Pierson died, and Robert Matthews and Truth were accused of
stealing from and poisoning him. Both were acquitted of the
murder, though Matthews was convicted of lesser crimes, served
time, and moved west.
In 1839, Truth’s son Peter took a job on a whaling ship called
the Zone of Nantucket. From 1840 to 1841, she received three
letters from him, though in his third letter he told her he had sent
five. Peter said he also never received any of her letters. When the
ship returned to port in 1842, Peter was not on board and Truth
never heard from him again.
The year 1843 was a turning point for Truth. She became a
Methodist, and on June 1, she changed her name to Sojourner Truth.
She told her friends: “The Spirit calls me, and I must go” and left to
make her way travelling and preaching about the abolition of slavery.
At that time, Truth began attending Millerite Adventist camp meetings.
However, that did not last since Jesus failed to appear in 1843 and
then again in 1844. Like many others disappointed, Truth distanced
herself from her Millerite friends for a while.
In 1844, she joined the Northampton Association of Education and
Industry in Northampton, Massachusetts. Founded by abolitionists, the
organization supported women’s rights and religious tolerance as well
as pacifism. There were, in its four-and-a-half year history, a total of
240 members, though no more than 120 at any one time. They lived
on 470 acres (1.9 km2) raising livestock, running a sawmill, a gristmill,
and a silk factory. While there, Truth met William Lloyd Garrison,
Frederick Douglass, and David Ruggles. In 1846, the group disbanded,
unable to support itself. In 1845, she joined the household of George
Benson, the brother-in-law of William Lloyd Garrison. In 1849, she
visited John Dumont before he moved west.
Truth started dictating her memoirs to her friend Olive Gilbert, and
in 1850 William Lloyd Garrison privately published her book, The
Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave. That same year, she
purchased a home in what would become the village of Florence in
Northampton for $300, and spoke at the first National Women’s Rights
Convention in Worcester, Massachusetts. In 1854, with proceeds from
sales of the Narrative and cartes-de-visite titled “I sell the shadow to
support the substance,” she paid off the mortgage held by her friend
from the Community, Samuel L. Hill.
Fondly submitted for the Diversity Committee