Sojourner Truth Biography


(History of the World: The 19th Century)

Article abstract: A featured speaker at abolitionist meetings before the Civil War, Truth worked initially to expose the immorality of the practice of slavery and later to ensure to welfare of emancipated African Americans.

Early Life

Sojourner Truth, originally Isabella Baumfree, was born into slavery in Hurley, Ulster County, New York, around 1797. Her parents were slaves owned by Colonel Johannes Hardenbergh, a prosperous farmer of Dutch descent. Her father, James, a tall man said to be “straight as a tree” (for which he received the Dutch surname of “Baumfree”), was of African and possibly American Indian descent. Her mother, Betsey, also known as “Mau Mau Bett,” was of African lineage; through family and biblical stories, she instilled in Isabella and her ten siblings the value of family and spirituality. She assured Isabella she could always talk to God when there was no one else to turn to. Formal education was not available, but Isabella developed a self-reliance and strength in her young years that would preserve her through severe testing and make her work in social reform possible. Her childhood also provided the background from which the vivid and memorable anecdotes used in her lectures would later spring.

Isabella herself was sold at the age of nine. Although she was a diligent worker, she was beaten for her inability to communicate with her owners, the Neelys (Isabella spoke a Dutch dialect). Next, she was sold to the Schryvers, who owned a tavern. During her time with the Schryvers, her mother died, and her father soon followed. Eventually, Isabella was sold to the Dumonts, where she worked part-time as a field hand and helped in the kitchen. At this time, Isabella’s greatest wish was to please; sometimes, she would stay up half the night working to gain favor with her master.

When grown, Isabella fell in love with Robert, a slave from a neighboring farm, but they were forbidden to marry because Robert’s master disapproved of the match. After the couple continued to met secretly, Robert was severely beaten and made to marry another woman. Isabella, in turn, was given in marriage to another Dumont slave named Tom. She still had the youngest two of their five children with her as the date for her emancipation approached in 1827 (New York legislators had decreed that all slaves above the age of twenty-eight in that year would be emancipated; previous laws had freed slaves born after 1799).

The year 1827 marked a turning point in the life of Isabella Baumfree. Dumont had promised Isabella and her husband their freedom in 1826 and a log cabin in which to live in exchange for her hard work and faithfulness as a slave. Despite sustaining an injury to her hand, Isabella worked harder than ever for that year in order to fulfill her part of the bargain. When the time came for Dumont to deliver, however, he refused, knowing that he needed her labor in order to overcome losses from crop failure. Furthermore, he illegally sold Isabella’s son Peter out of state after she escaped his farm.

Isabella sought help after her escape. Quaker friends sent her to live with Isaac and Maria Van Wagener. It was during this period that Isabella took her first successful political action, suing for the recovery of her son by entering a plea before the Grand Jury of Kingston, and winning; Quakers helped Isabella raise money to retrieve Peter and they were reunited. The fact that the Van Wageners insisted on being called by their names, rather than by “master,” impressed Isabella, since she had always perceived slave holders as being innately better than slaves.

Isabella’s religious conversion followed, as did the beginning of her life as Sojourner Truth. Truth recounts her conversion as suddenly being overcome by the feeling she was loved, and feeling love for everyone else—even people who had abused her. She also sensed the presence of someone between her and God (Jesus), and realized her mission in life was to preach the injustice of slavery until it had disappeared for good.

Truth moved to New York City in 1829 and worked there as a maid until 1843, when she left to begin her career as a lecturer for the abolition of slavery and human rights. Truth, who said she conversed with God as with another person, claimed that God himself had now given her the name of “Sojourner” because she was to be a traveler and “Truth” because that was what she was to spread throughout the land. This name change signaled Truth’s break with her former identity as a laborer, a slave bearing her master’s name, and marked the beginning of her lifelong dedication to the fight to recognize the rights of all human beings.

Life’s Work

During the twenty-five years that followed, Sojourner Truth traveled thousands of miles, lecturing in twenty-one states and in the District of Columbia. She would routinely set up the white sash given to her by abolitionist women with texts written across it “proclaiming liberty throughout the land,” begin singing, then preach about the injustice of slavery as people gathered around her. By the 1840’s, Truth had become a popular figure and known to be an impressive speaker, six feet tall, clad in gray dress with a turbanlike scarf covering her head, and armed with a mind quick and courageous enough to adapt to, disarm, and delight audiences that were especially hostile to African Americans and women who supported abolition or women’s rights. Many lecturers left the United States at this time, rather than face proslavery mobs who frequently threatened lives and broke up meetings. Truth also inspired a famous work of art by the American sculptor, William Wetmore Story,...

(The entire section is 2350 words.)