There are historic figures whose names we sometimes hear but whose story may have grown hazy. Sojourner Truth too often falls into that category.
Her famous “Ain’t I A Woman” speech of 1851 may still be familiar to a few, but unfortunately, the popular version has her speaking in the voice of the Deep South where she doesn’t belong. In fact, she’s a native New Yorker from the Hudson Valley.
A bronze statue of this famous 19th century African-American abolitionist and women’s rights advocate is being installed this month at the western entrance to the Walkway Over the Hudson State Park in Ulster County, so this is a good opportunity to get to know Sojourner Truth better.
She was born enslaved in 1797 to James Baumfree (alternatively spelled Bomefree) and Elizabeth ‘Mau-Mau Bet’, enslaved parents who were owned by a Dutch family in Esopus, Ulster County. Isabella, as she was named then, grew up speaking Dutch.
Some of the worst treatment she received as an enslaved teen came at the hands of her second owner because she didn’t speak or understand English, and he didn’t speak or understand Dutch. She bore the scars on her lacerated back, the punishment she received as a result of this language barrier, for the rest of her life. Later, she displayed these marks during her talks as a sign of the common mistreatment the enslaved received. Even after becoming fluent in English, contemporaries noted that she spoke with a Dutch accent, not a Southern one as a later popular account of her famous 1851 speech portrays.
Despite her low birth status, Sojourner Truth became one of the leading voices for human rights and universal suffrage in the 19th century. Her life as an itinerant preacher working on behalf of the enslaved, newly freed, and women, especially Black women, left a legacy that has kept her in the public consciousness.
Her birth, two years before New York’s Gradual Emancipation Act took effect on July 4, 1799, would have her remain enslaved well into adulthood. Her owner John Dumont struck a deal with Isabella and agreed to free her in 1826. After receiving a life-threatening injury while working in his fields, she required time to heal. Dumont used the healing time as justification to renege on his promise of freedom. In retaliation, she leaned upon her trust in God, and “…walked away by daylight” to find liberty, taking her youngest daughter Sophia with her.
This map shows where Sojourner Truth began her walk to freedom in Esopus, Ulster County, (pin on the right) westward to Marbletown (pin on the left).
This bold journey by the 29-year-old was the first of several she would make in her life. After walking many miles, she reached a settlement at Marbletown headed by Quakers, who were known anti-slavery abolitionists. A man there directed her to a farm owned by Isaac Van Wagenen, who held no enslaved people and had joined Quakers and Methodists working for the emancipation of all the enslaved. Van Wagenen paid $25 to Dumont for Isabella and her daughter, then freed her, allowing her to work off the cost as a domestic for the household.
While working for the Van Wagenen’s, Isabella faced her second tribulation. The Gradual Manumission laws in New York restricted the sale of enslaved children out of the state, lest they not be freed at the appointed time. Her young son Peter, through a series of twists and turns, was illegally sold and taken to far-off Alabama, from which he might never return. Upon hearing the news, Isabella ran to the wife of her former owner, who had orchestrated the sale, but was firmly rebuked. Isabella reached out to others, all of whom made light of her frantic state over her missing child. Realizing how others perceived her plight, she called upon God and proclaimed calmly that she would have her son back.
Walking the road, she happened upon a man who directed her to some Quakers, assuring her they would help. Not only did they provide lodging for her that night, they provided money to press her complaint in court. In 1828, Isabelle won her son’s return _ marking one of the first legal cases where an African-American woman prevailed in court against a white person.
The judge in the case declared that the “boy be delivered into the hands of the mother—having no other master, no other controller, no other conductor, but his mother.” It was to Isabella’s horror that when alone with her son, she discovered he now bore scars from being physically abused during his distant enslavement.
From Ulster County, Isabelle moved to New York City, where she worked as a domestic for people involved in the anti-slavery movement. It is during this time that she began her training in public speaking. Illiterate throughout her life, during her time in New York City, she increased her knowledge of the Bible, listening intently during Bible study. She believed strongly in the idea of everyone having a direct relationship with God and leaned heavily upon hers. Like many abolitionists she became known for her radical and anti-cleric religious views. More of a spiritualist than a traditional churchgoer, Truth often spoke of being abused by ‘Christians,’ many of whom strongly supported slavery and participated in mob violence against blacks and white members of anti-slavery groups.
During her time in New York City, she worked, saved money and opened a bank account, reunited with a brother and sister who had been sold as children, won a court case for slander, and grew as a preacher, speaking out on the street and at anti-slavery gatherings.
But by 1841, divisions within New York’s abolitionist community, the rise of the pro-slavery Democratic party and her son Peter’s death at sea while working as a sailor, pushed her onward. Heeding inner divine guidance, she changed her name from Isabella Baumfree to Sojourner Truth in 1843 and headed east out of New York City. She traveled the road to Brooklyn, then out to the Long Island, into Connecticut and ultimately reached Massachusetts, speaking ‘truth’ to hundreds along the way about the inhuman practice of enslavement and human rights. Her speeches were well received and comments about her talks appeared repeatedly in newspapers across the region.
Her strong desire to be treated as an equal manifested itself not just in her teachings on tolerance, but her desire to live what she preached. The early 19th century saw waves of religious and social reform movements sweeping through the northern part of the U.S. Many within the anti-slavery movement believed strongly in equality, prompting Abolitionist and other religious reformers to establish utopian communities that foreshadowed the communes of the 1960s. One of the early examples was the Northampton Association in Northampton, Massachusetts, which Sojourner Truth joined in 1844.
The Narrative of Sojourner Truth, the story of her life, was dictated to her friend Olive Gilbert during their time together at Northampton. According to Professor Margaret Washington, a noted scholar on Sojourner Truth, and author of Sojourner Truth’s America, “…embedded in Northampton was a commitment to revolutionize civilization.” Frederick Douglass once commented that “The Northampton air was full of “isms…Grahamism, mesmerism, Fourierism, transcendentalism, Communism and Abolitionism. But it was to be commended because of its deep commitment to emancipation.”
The Northhampton community was home to many involved in the anti-slavery movement. A mix of farmers, artisans, clerks, teachers, ministers, intellectuals, and other professionals, it reflected the equality that Sojourner longed to see in America. While in residence Sojourner worked in the laundry, but otherwise spent her time traveling the region preaching and teaching on civil rights, abolition and suffrage. It was her plan that the Narrative, along with photographs of herself, which she had inscribed with the famous words, “I sell the shadow to support the substance,” would provide an income to support her vision that many women didn’t have.
The stirrings of the coming Civil War took her from Massachusetts to Washington, D.C., where during the war she recruited men for the Union Army, and later worked for the Freedmen’s Bureau, helping to feed thousands of newly freed enslaved. Her awareness of their plight, and the endless need for work and sustenance moved her to the realization that without land of their own the freedmen would not prosper. This began her work on petitioning for space within the territory of Kansas. With the end of the war she returned to the road, again focusing on universal suffrage and women’s rights.
But support for all the disenfranchised in the country wasn’t there. It became increasingly clear that a choice had to be made between voting rights for Black men or women, but both would not succeed at once. The ‘race or gender’ struggle created a schism within the suffrage movement that was being led by Elizabeth Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, who wanted to see white women gain suffrage first. Their public comments and involvement with strong pro-slavery Democrats pushed many long active suffrage supporters like Sojourner Truth and Fredrick Douglass to distance themselves.
Following the passage of the 15th Amendment which gave voting rights to Black men (but not women regardless of race) in 1870, Sojourner moved to Battle Creek, Michigan, and returned to the women’s movement. Leaving behind the animosity of the past, she and Douglass again joined forces with Stanton and Anthony to push for voting rights for women until failing health caused her to retire from public life. On November 26, 1883, the 86-year-old Sojourner Truth died at her home in Michigan. The national adoption of women’s suffrage was still four decades away.
Her popularity as a long standing, dynamic public speaker on human rights and suffrage, someone often quoted or referenced in newspapers and other periodicals of the time, brought hundreds to her funeral. Sojourner Truth’s life reflected her deep and abiding belief that justice for all would someday come. The shadow of her legacy is deep and abiding, and reflects a journey toward equality that she knew would continue.
As she wrote, “I don’t expect I will to live to see it, but when this generation has passed away, there will be a grand change.”
Cover picture of Sojourner Truth: Credit Wikipedia Commons; Wood, Norman B., “White Side of a Black Subject,” (1897)
Post by Lavada Nahon, Interpreter of African American History, state Bureau of Historic Sites
Sojourner Truth Resources
Offers critical analysis of Truth’s famous Ain’t I a Woman speech, dispelling the inaccurate use of southern dialect in the later transcription and focusing on the earlier transcription of the speech which was more true to her northern Afro-Dutch roots.
Information about Sojourner Truth’s family and the slave holders associated with them from the New York Slavery Records Index.
This PBS series highlights the spiritual lives of historic figures and provides details about Sojourner Truth’s religious beliefs, spiritual life and ministry.
Narrative of Sojourner Truth; a bondswoman of olden time, emancipated by the New York Legislature in the early part of the present century; with a history of her labors and correspondence drawn from her “Book of life.”
This work includes several important texts about Sojourner Truth’s life, including a dictated autobiography and some correspondence. Full text transcript available via PDF.
Grigsby, Darcy G., Enduring Truths: Sojourner’s Shadows and Substance (2015).
Mabee, Carleton and Mabee, Susan Newhouse, Sojourner Truth: Slave, Prophet, Legend (1993).
Mandziuk, Roseann M. and Pullon Fitch, Suzanne Sojourner Truth as Orator: Wit, Story, and Song (1997).
Gilbert, Olive, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth (1850)
Painter, Nell Irvin Sojourner Truth: A Life (1997).
Schmidt, Gary D. (illustrated by Daniel Minter), So Tall Within: Sojourner Truth’s Long Walk Toward Freedom (2018) [children’s book].
Stetson, Erlene and David, Linda, Glorying in Tribulation: The Lifework of Sojourner Truth (1989).
Washington, Margaret, Sojourner Truth’s America (2011)