Fembio Special: Black History
born ca. 1797 in Hurley, New York
died November 26, 1883 in Battle Creek, Michigan
American abolitionist and women's rights activist
Sojourner Truth was a fiery orator, committed abolitionist, women’s and poor people’s rights activist, preacher and singer, who was not formally educated but created her own theoretical constructs for social equity and radical action.
Originally named Isabella Bomefree, Truth, the second youngest child of ten, was born around 1797 to James and Elizabeth Bomefree, slaves on a farm in Ulster County, New York. As a child and youth, Isabella spoke Dutch as a first language, was sold to several owners, and at age fourteen married an older slave named Thomas with whom she had five children. In 1826 (one year before she would have been legally freed by state law), Isabella ran away from enslavement, finding protection with the Von Wageners, a Quaker family whose last name she took. While with the Von Wageners, Isabella went to court and successfully sued for her son’s return to New York after his owner had sold him illegally into perpetual slavery in Alabama.
In the early 1830s, Bomefree relocated to New York City with her teenage son Peter, leaving her daughters in the care of their father. Earning a living as a domestic servant (one of the only occupations open to free black women), Isabella also attended white and black churches and joined the Magdelene Society, a Methodist mission dedicated to reforming prostitutes. Later Isabella became the only Black and one of the few working class people to join Robert Matthews’ Zion Hill commune, which believed in good and evil spirits and illnesses caused by the same, until its collapse in 1835.
In 1843, inspired by difficult economic times and the Millerites, a religious group who believed the world would end that year, Isabella Bomefree took on a new identity. She changed her name to Sojourner Truth and became a wandering evangelist. Making her way eastward across Long Island and Connecticut and up to Northampton, Massachusetts, Sojourner sang to beckon people to her, often making up her own words to commonly known tunes like church hymns or “John Brown’s Body” (also known as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”). She then preached to them, whether they were at camp meetings, in churches or just on the roadside. Once the Millerites faced the Great Disappointment at the end of 1843, Truth became a member of the Northampton Association, a utopian community led by George Benson. The Association’s reformist-minded members (including Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison) exposed Sojourner Truth to liberal concepts such as abolitionism and feminism.
It was Garrison who persuaded Truth to dictate her life story and publish it in 1850 as The Narrative of Sojourner Truth. When the Northampton Association fell apart in 1846, the proceeds from sales of the Narrative enabled Truth to buy a house in Florence, Massachusetts. More importantly, as one of the first accounts of a female former slave, the Narrative was a powerful weapon in the abolitionist cause, in which Truth was an active speaker and protestor, known for her insight, courage and wit.
By 1850 Sojourner was also one of the first activists to make the connection between the rights of slaves and black people and those of women. In a speech at a women’s rights convention in Akron, Ohio in 1851, Truth proclaimed, “I could work as much and eat as much as a man ... and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen ‘em 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 a woman?” With this statement Sojourner demanded that white feminists broaden their vision to include the suffering and strength of black, enslaved and poor women in the category of woman and in the fight for equal rights.
With the passage in 1867 of the Fourteenth Amendment giving black men the vote, white suffragettes were outraged at the lack of reference to women, and most Black activists believed that the suffering of Black male slaves entitled them to receive the vote first. Again, Truth was the only voice for Black women, and for recognizing the link between racism and sexism: “There is a great deal of stir about colored men getting their rights but not a word about the colored women’s theirs, you see, the colored man will be masters over the women, and it will be just as bad as it was before. So I am for keeping the thing going while things are stirring, because if we wait ‘till it is still, it will take a great while to get it going again.” Moving to Washington, D.C. in 1863, Sojourner Truth worked on behalf of black Civil War soldiers, nursed and taught domestic skills to freed slaves and visited President Lincoln. During this time Truth also protested and brought about congressional action banning segregation on trolly cars in Washington, D.C.
While working for the Freedman’s Relief Association after the War, Sojourner discovered the lack of paying work for Blacks, and in 1867 initiated a job-placement effort that matched poor Black workers with employers in upstate New York and Battle Creek, Michigan. This work enabled Truth to understand the gap between the immense contribution Black people had made to the nation’s development and the complete lack of acknowledgement or reward they had received for their labor. Speaking of the revolutionary idea of reparations nearly two centuries before Black Power activists, Sojourner proclaimed “Our nerves and sinews, our tears and blood, have been sacrificed on the altar of this nation’s avarice. Our unpaid labor has been a stepping stone to its financial success. Some of its dividends must surely be ours.” Acting on her words, Truth led an unsuccessful petition to Congress for a land grant to resettle Black freedmen in the West.
Although her petition did not succeed, it paved the way for 1879’s large, spontaneous migration of Black “Exodusters” from Mississippi, Lousiana, Texas and Tennessee to Kansas. In 1883, Sojourner Truth died at her home in Battle Creek, Michigan.
In addition to her heroic deeds, Truth has also become known for her revolutionary ideas and biting sense of humor. Remarking on her own lack of formal education, she quipped, “I can’t read, but I can read people.” She suggested to suffragettes that they engage in direct action, “Sisters, I ain’t clear what you be after. If women want any rights more than they’s got, why don’t they just take them, and not be talking about it?” Finally, in response to white male abolitionists who taunted her, she revealed her radical theological view by “[asking them] ‘Don’t you believe in Jesus?’” When they said they did, she said, “‘Well, Jesus is the son of God and Mary. Man had nothing to do with it’” (Joseph 43).
(Most quotes in above paragraph from V. Ortiz, 1974)
Frederick, is God dead?
Truly, here the rich rob the poor and the poor rob each other.
Author: Sarah K. Horsley
Literature & Sources
Bernard, Jacqueline. Journey Toward Freedom: The Story of Sojourner Truth. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1990.
Painter, Nell Irvin. “Truth, Sojourner” in Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, edited by Darlene Clark Hine, Elsa Barkley Brown and Rosalyn Terborg-Penn. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1993, Vol. II, pp. 1172-1176.
Joseph, Gloria I. “Sojourner Truth: Archetypal Black Feminist” in Wild Women in the Whirlwind. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press 1990, pp. 35-47.
Ortiz, Victoria. Sojourner Truth: A Self-Made Woman. New York: Lippincott Company, 1974.
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