Sojourner Truth: A Mother’s Will
By Tara Mae
In honor of Mother’s Day, Three Village Historical Society recognizes Sojourner Truth, mother of five children and guardian of social justice movements. Born into slavery as Isabella Baumfree in upstate New York, she fought for her freedom, she fought for her children, and she fought for the liberation of both men and women. As a preacher, orator, abolitionist, and suffragist, Truth’s legacy is fortified by her indomitable and feminist spirit, which informed her work, including her most famous speech “Ain’t I a Woman?”. Although accounts of her exact words vary, there is no denying their power.
Sojourner Truth was born circa 1797 in Ulster County, New York. As a child, she was sold three times; lastly to John Dumont. While enslaved on his property, she learned to speak English, having previously only spoken Dutch. Truth fell in love with a man named Robert, but their union was forbidden by his owner since any children born of it would have been considered the property of Dumont. One night, when Robert snuck away to see her, he was followed by his owner and son who viciously beat him, bound him, and carried him away. Truth never saw him again. Dumont later forced her to marry an older enslaved man named Thomas. She had five children: a son who died in childhood, Diana, Peter, Elizabeth, and Sophia. Based on her own account, Diana may have been the child of Robert.
In 1826, Truth escaped with infant Sophia. Under New York State law she was supposed to be freed in 1827, but Dumont had promised to free her a year early. When Dumont reneged on his promise, claiming that an earlier hand injury had impeded her ability to work, Truth decided to make her exit. After staying long enough to spin about 100 pounds of wool, she left one morning at dawn. Truth later stated, "I did not run off, for I thought that wicked, but I walked off, believing that to be all right." She was forced to leave her other children behind, a condition of legislation that declared all enslaved children and young adults had to remain in service (effectively enslaved) until they were 27 years old. Truth found her way to the New Paltz home of Isaac and Maria Van Wagenen, an abolitionist couple. When Dumont came to claim her and Sophia, Isaac paid him $20 for Truth so that they could stay with the Van Wagenens until Truth was legally free.
While living with them, Truth learned her son Peter had been sold by Solomon Gedney, who had bought him from the Dumonts, to his brother-in-law in Alabama. This was an illegal act, since enslaved people and their children were not permitted to be sold out of state. She first confronted Mrs. Dumont and Gedney; the former reacted with contempt and questioned how Truth would ever have the means to get Peter back.
In her memoirs, Truth recalls that she retorted “I have no money, but God has enough, or what’s better! And, I’ll have my child again!” Determined to reclaim her son and bolstered by her beliefs, Truth sought the assistance of a Quaker family who took her to the Ulster County Courthouse in Kingston to present her case before the grand jury. Truth gave such a convincing argument that a juror invited her to a separate room to restate her case and swear that Peter was hers. Once she had done this, Truth was presented with a document to take to the constable so that Gedney could be served.
Initially, she walked miles every day between the Van Wagnens’ home and the courthouse; she then took up employment as a domestic, living and working for one of the four lawyers who took on her suit, probably pro bono. When Gedney, who had retrieved Peter from Alabama, refused to produce him in court as required by law, Truth hired a fifth attorney for $5, using money she had raised from her Quaker friends. She was the first African American woman to take a white man to court and win.
When Truth left Kingston for New York City, she was accompanied by her son and a new spiritual awakening that would guide her for the rest of her life. A devout Methodist, her religious conviction helped sustain her through difficulties such as her implication in the suspicious death of a former employer, Elijah Pierson, that resulted in her winning a slander suit against the family who charged her, and the disappearance of Peter. He remained with her until 1839, when he went to sea. Between 1840 and 1841, Truth received three letters from him. When the ship returned to port in 1842, he was not onboard and she never heard from him again. She maintained relationships with her other children, but found that she had another calling.
On June 1, 1843, Pentecost Sunday, Isabella Baumfree became Sojourner Truth. Moved to roam as an itinerant preacher, she was known for her strong presence and ability to engage a crowd. She stayed for a time with the Northampton Association of Education and Industry, in Northampton Massachusetts, a collaborative community founded by abolitionists that promoted women’s rights, the emancipation of slaves, religious tolerance, and pacifism. While there, she met Frederick Douglass, David Ruggles, and William Lloyd Garrison. This is also where she is believed to have given her first anti-slavery speech.
Truth began speaking more regularly at civil and equal rights gatherings, such as the Abolitionist Convention in the 1840s. Due to speak after Wendell Holmes, known to be a great orator, she elected to sing an original composition, “I am Pleading for My People,” which was to the melody of “Auld Lang Syne.” Never having learned to read and write, she dictated her memoirs to her friend Olive GIlbert, and Garrison privately published The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave in 1850. She also continued to develop a reputation as an impassioned preacher and fervent speaker; that year, Truth spoke at the National Women’s Rights Convention. A staunch supporter of gender and racial equality, Truth presented her best known oration in 1851, at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention.
To advocate for such equality was a bold and risky move, to do so as an emancipated African American woman was brave and possibly dangerous. There is no written record of the address, which would become known as “Ain’t I a Woman?”. The most famous version of the speech, which includes the title as its refrain, was popularized in 1863 by Frances Gage, an organizer of the event. However, the dialect and some details she recounts do not necessarily align with Truth’s history. The language used reflects more of a Southern speech pattern and information such as “I have borne thirteen children,” does not match the biographical details that exist (though her mother may have had as many as twelve children.)
An account of her speech, published by her friend Marius Robinson in the Anti-Slavery Bugle weeks after she made it, perhaps better reflects her exact words. To make her point, Truth champions women's equality to men, alludes to her past enslavement, and invokes her knowledge of the Bible:
I am a woman’s rights...I have plowed and reaped and husked and mowed, and can any man do more than that? I have heard much about the sexes being equal...The poor men seems to be all in confusion, and don’t know what to do. Why children, if you have woman’s rights, give it to her and you will feel better... And how came Jesus into the world? Through God who created him and the woman who bore him. Man, where was your part? But the women are coming up blessed be God and a few of the men are coming up with them. But man is in a tight place, the poor slave is on him, woman is coming on him, he is surely between a hawk and a buzzard.
This arguably more historically accurate version invokes Truth’s strong character. It is an invocation of equal rights and a testament to her own insight, understanding, and fortitude. Her opening declaration is the embodiment of a sociopolitical movement and an acknowledgment of how she fought for and won her liberty and the right to her own child. She recognizes male bewilderment; women are demanding equality with men and individuals are demanding enslaved people be free. In her, they find a freed African American woman who is arguing for equality.
Truth continued to tour the country and give both informal and formal speeches. In 1857, she moved to Michigan. Her three daughters and their families joined her there. During the Civil War, she helped recruit African Americans to the Union Army. She was also employed by the National Freedman’s Relief Association in Washington, D.C., where she worked tirelessly to improve conditions for African Americans. While there, Truth met with President Abraham Lincoln and waged a campaign to effectively desegregate horse-drawn streetcars by sitting in the “white” section of them and refusing to move.
After the war, she continued her advocacy, unsuccessfully lobbying the federal government to provide land grants to formerly enslaved persons, supporting President Ulysses S. Grant’s re-election campaign, and even trying to vote on Election Day (she was turned away from the polls.) Throughout her life, Truth continued her advocacy, promoting the ideas of justice and equality. She forged her own path, working to improve the lives of the subjugated and for the betterment of humanity. Surrounded by generations of her family, Sojourner Truth died in Michigan, at approximately 86 years of age.