Truth is powerful and it prevails.
From slave to fearless human rights advocate, Sojourner Truth is one of the most inspirational figures of the 19th century. In 1797, or thereabouts, Truth was born Isabella Baumfree in the state of New York to James and Elizabeth (some accounts say her mother’s name was Betsey), two slaves of Colonel Johannes Hardenbergh. Truth married another slave, Thomas, when she was in her late teens and eventually had five children. She had several different owners, many of whom were extremely cruel, until 1826. Growing support for emancipation and abolition of slavery prompted Truth’s final owner to promise that he would set her free long before it became the law. After it became clear that her owner had lied and she would not be freed, she decided to literally walk away. “I did not run off,” she said. “For I thought that wicked, but I walked off, believing that to be all right.”
Immediately after her escape she became a devout Christian. Isaac and Maria Van Wagenen took her in after she found her way to their home, which was not far from her former slave master in rural New York. Their kindness and faith profoundly affected Truth.
In 1826, she officially changed her name to “Sojourner Truth” to represent her mission of traveling throughout America to preach truth and fight injustice. Despite being illiterate, she became a huge national figure, taking part in many social movements and befriending countless abolitionists and reformers. Her most famous speech “Ain’t I a Woman?” makes the case not only for racial equality but also for equality for women. She refutes a common argument that since Christ was not a woman, women should not have equal rights to men. “Where did your Christ come from?” she asked. “From God and a woman. Man had nothing to do with Him.” During a later speech to the American Equal Rights Association, she brought up the illogicality of her owning a home, paying taxes and making her own living but being unable to vote. While she was pleased that rights were starting to be recognized for black males, she knew a fight was still to be had.
Truth is also notable because she was one of the first black women to win a legal case over a white man. In 1828, she learned that her five-year-old son, Peter, had been illegally sold to a slave owner in Alabama where he was abused and mistreated. After many months of legal proceedings and the help of the Van Wagenens, justice was served and Peter was set free.
Truth, who was unusually tall at nearly six feet, used her stature and low voice to command even the most hostile crowds. She often adapted and changed her lectures, depending on the audience’s reception, and incorporated religious themes, Biblical stories and anecdotes from her own life. Having experienced it herself, Truth was able to give accurate and emotional depictions of the demeaning and horrific nature of slavery, as well as the redeeming power of faith.
Truth died on November 26, 1883, and was buried at Oak Hill Cemetery in Battle Creek, Michigan. According to her tombstone, she died at 105. It’s more likely that she was closer to 86. Truth allowed speculation about her age to go on because she enjoyed the reputation of being the “world’s oldest lecturer.”
Hero of Liberty image attribution: Randall Studio [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.