Sojourner Truth: Biography, Facts & Quotes

Instructor: Mark Bowles

Mark has taught, designed, and written textbooks for university history courses. He has a Ph.D. in history.

Learn about the life of former slave Sojourner Truth and some of the most significant statements, like her 'Ain't I a Woman' speech, that she made in her support of anti-slavery and women's rights.

Who Was Sojourner Truth?

Sojourner Truth (c. 1787-1883) was a remarkable abolitionist and women's rights activist. She was a giant of a woman, not just because of what she accomplished in her long lifetime, but also because of her physical size. She was a commanding presence on stage, standing 6 feet tall. This combined with her powerful intellect made her a dynamic speaker for the causes she held so close to her heart.

Isabella the Slave

There are few facts about her early life, but we know she was born with the name of Isabella ('Belle') Baumfree to slave parents. At age nine, her master sold her and a pack of sheep for $100 to John Neely in Kingston, New York. He was a cruel master, regularly beating her until he sold her for $105 to a tavern owner. A year and a half later she was sold again to John Dumont in West Park, New York. There she was a household slave and bore five children. She eventually escaped in 1826 with her infant daughter and lived with Isaac and Mary Van Wagenen, a Quaker family who was against slavery. When she learned that John Dumont had illegally sold her five year old son, the Van Wagenens helped her file legal documents get him back. She won the case and became one of the first African-American women to successfully use the justice system against a white man.

Isabella in New York

In 1829, she moved to New York City and joined the Zion National Church. She supported herself as a free domestic servant by day, but became an outspoken advocate for moral reform by night. There she became an evangelist, preaching the Christian gospel on the city streets. Despite being illiterate she gained a great deal of knowledge about the Bible and shared it with those who came to hear her talk.

Sojourner Truth Emerges

In 1843, she changed her name to Sojourner Truth, because the word 'sojourn' means 'to stay somewhere temporarily,' and her mission in life was to travel and spread her vision of Christian morality. For her surname she dropped 'Van Wagenen,' which had been the name of the Quaker family she lived with, and replaced it with 'Truth.' After taking the new name she said she planned to 'travel up and down the land' and became a 'sign to the people.' She wandered through Connecticut and Massachusetts astounding audiences with her message, and in the 1850s, finally settled down in Battle Creek, Michigan.

Sojourner Truth
Sojourner Truth

Often, her message angered her audience if it consisted of anti-women's rights or pro-slavery advocates. At one famous speech, known as the Mob Convention, on September 7, 1853, several men confronted her and she said to them, 'You may hiss as much as you please, but women will get their rights anyway. You can't stop us, neither.'

Ain't I a Woman?

Her message also angered those who did not believe that 'women's rights' extended to African-American women. The most famous example of this occurred in Akron, Ohio, in 1851 at the Ohio Women's Rights Convention. The issue to which she spoke extemporaneously was on African-American women having the same rights that white women were fighting for. There are several versions of this speech that have been reported, but one famous passage comes from Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Matilda Joslyn Gage (who was present for the speech) in their book, History of Woman Suffrage. Gage recalled the speech like this:

''Dat man ober dar say dat womin needs to be helped into carriages, and lifted ober ditches, and to hab de best place everywhar. Nobody eber helps me into carriages, or ober mud-puddles, or gibs me any best place!' And raising herself to her full height, and her voice to a pitch like rolling thunder, she asked. 'And ain't I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! (and she bared her right arm to the shoulder, showing her tremendous muscular power). I have ploughed, and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain't I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man - when I could get it - and bear de lash as well! And ain't I a woman? I have borne thirteen chilern, and seen 'em mos' 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?'

Sojourner Meets the President

During the Civil War, Sojourner helped to support the black Union regiments in the North by sending them clothing and food. She even composed lyrics to a song called 'The Valiant Soldiers' for the 1st Michigan Colored Regiment. Her fame spread wide, and even President Abraham Lincoln asked her to travel to Washington, D.C., and meet with him in the White House. It was 1864, and by this time, she was 70 years old and recovering from an illness. When someone asked her why she was going to the White House she replied, 'I'm going down there to advise the president.' At the end of her meeting with him she shared a book that she carried everywhere with her called the Book of Life. Its well-worn pages included the names of all the important people she encountered in her lifetime. Lincoln added his own name with this comment: 'For Aunty Sojourner Truth, Oct. 29, 1864, A. Lincoln.'

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