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Life Story: Sojourner Truth (ca. 1797-1883)

Fierce Warrior for Social Justice

The story of an enslaved woman who became one of the most important social justice activists in American history.

I Sell the Shadow to Support the Substance

I Sell the Shadow to Support the Substance (Carte de Visite), 1864. New-York Historical Society Library.

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This video was created by the New-York Historical Society Teen Leaders in collaboration with the Untold project.

Sojourner Truth was born into slavery around the year 1797. Her parents, John and Elizabeth Bomfree, were enslaved by a man named Charles Hardenbergh who lived in Esopus, New York. John and Elizabeth named their new daughter Isabella.

Esopus was a predominately Dutch area, so Isabella grew up speaking Dutch. She never learned to read or write. When Isabella was five years old, she started to work for her enslaver alongside her mother, learning all of the domestic skills that would make her a valuable enslaved woman when she was grown. Isabella was one of ten or twelve children. Many of her siblings were sold away from the family when she was young, a trauma that stayed with her for the rest of her life.

When Isabella was nine, Charles Hardenbergh died. Isabella was separated from her parents and sold to a farmer named John Neely. The Neely family was very cruel to Isabella. They beat her frequently and mocked and punished her for not understanding English. When Isabella’s father visited her new home, he was horrified to see her injuries. He made arrangements for Isabella to be bought by an innkeeper. But the innkeeper had money trouble and sold Isabella again a few months later. Within a year of being separated from her parents, Isabella had three different enslavers.

Isabella’s new enslaver was John Dumont. John was a prosperous farmer who made Isabella work in his home and fields. Isabella grew up tall and strong, and John bragged to his neighbors that she worked harder than any of his male workers, enslaved or free. Within a few years of her arrival, when Isabella was still a teenager, John initiated a sexual relationship with her. Isabella, who was young and powerless, bore him at least one child. Isabella then married an older enslaved man. Ultimately, she gave birth to five children, four of whom lived to adulthood. She later recalled that she could never properly feed her babies because she was expected to breastfeed John’s white children.

During Isabella’s early life, New York passed a series of gradual emancipation laws that would ultimately abolish the practice of slavery in the state. According to these laws, Isabella was supposed to gain her freedom on July 4, 1827. John promised her that he would set her free one year earlier, but failed to keep his promise. Angry with John and tired of living with enslavement, Isabella took her youngest daughter and left John’s farm in 1826, claiming her own freedom.

Isabella found shelter and safety nearby with the Dutch Van Wagenens, a family she had known as a child. The Van Wagenens were abolitionists, and they helped her buy her freedom from John. To mark her new status as a free woman, she changed her name to Isabella Van Wagenen.

Shortly after Isabella left, John sold her son Peter. New York law required that Peter be kept in the state until he earned his own freedom under the emancipation laws, but Peter’s new owners took him to Alabama, where he could be enslaved for life. This kidnapping reminded Isabella of the trauma of losing her siblings. She sprang into action, demanding that local law enforcement get her son back. She gave public speeches in Kingston, New York, explaining the cruelties of slavery to any white person who would listen. She finally succeeded in regaining custody of her son, but Peter never recovered from the cruelty and terror he experienced while enslaved in the Deep South.

While she was fighting for custody of Peter, Isabella experienced a spiritual awakening. Her mother taught her spiritual traditions from Africa when she was a child, and she’d been exposed to Dutch Reform and Methodist teachings, but she had not committed fully to religion. In 1827, while she was considering returning to John’s farm, Isabella claimed God reprimanded her for not living a better life. She dedicated herself to doing God’s work in the future.

In 1851, Sojourner gave the famous speech commonly titled “Ain’t I a Woman” at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention. The text of the speech was later changed by a white publisher to make Sojourner sound more Southern, changing the public’s image of her.

In 1828, Isabella moved to New York City. She joined the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, which allowed her to meet and speak with many Black community leaders. She continued to explore her new religious calling and learned more about the abolitionist movement. She also found new causes to champion, including temperance, women’s rights, Black uplift, and pacifism. She took up teaching and preaching in New York’s poorest neighborhoods, boldly going places other women activists feared to visit.

For the next 11 years, Isabella worked as domestic servant before undergoing a second spiritual transformation. She believed God was calling her to travel and preach about the causes she believed in. To mark the start of this new chapter in her life, Isabella changed her name to Sojourner Truth. She was about 45 years old.

Sojourner traveled throughout the Northeast, telling her story and working to convince people to end slavery and support women’s rights. She had little money, so she often walked from place to place and sometimes slept outdoors. She met abolitionist leaders like Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, and David Ruggles along the way. She never shied away from challenging these celebrities in public when she disagreed with them. Sojourner’s lack of education and her Dutch accent made her something of an outsider, but the power of words and her conviction impressed all those around her.

Sojourner dictated her autobiography to a friend in 1850. Then she traveled west to continue her teaching. In 1851, she gave the famous speech commonly titled “Ain’t I a Woman” at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention. The text of the speech was later changed by a white publisher to make Sojourner sound more Southern, changing the public’s image of her. That version of the speech is still the most widely known today.

Sojourner encountered fierce opposition from pro-slavery groups wherever she traveled. She was often attacked, and on one occasion, she was beaten so severely that she was left with a limp for the rest of her life. However, Sojourner never stopped travelling and teaching, sure that God would protect her.

When the Civil War began, Sojourner dedicated her considerable talents to recruiting soldiers for the Union Army. Although she was a pacifist, she believed that the war was a fair punishment from God for the crime of slavery. She also knew the Union needed fighters to win. In 1864, she moved to Washington, D.C., and worked for the National Freedman’s Relief Association, striving to improve the lives and prospects of free Black people. That fall, she was invited to meet President Abraham Lincoln. But even in the midst of a war, she found time to ride the capital’s streetcars to force their desegregation.

After the war, Sojourner lobbied the U.S. government to grant land to newly free Black men and women. She understood that Black people could never be truly free until they achieved economic prosperity, and she knew that owning land was an important first step. She also continued to travel throughout the United States, giving speeches about women’s rights, prison reform, and desegregation. She was a passionate champion of all aspects of social justice right up until her death on November 26, 1883.

Vocabulary

  • abolition: The movement to end slavery in the United States.
  • African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church: A historically Black Christian church founded in New York City in 1821.
  • Black uplift: The idea that educated Black people are responsible for helping to improve the conditions of all Black people.
  • commune: A group of people who live together and share possessions and responsibilities.
  • desegregation: Ending the policy of keeping different races separate.
  • dictate: Speak aloud so someone else can record that person’s words.
  • domestic: Chores related to running a home.
  • emancipation: Setting people free from slavery.
  • lobbied: Conduct activities to influence government officials.
  • National Freedman’s Relief Association: An organization dedicated to helping Black people after the Civil War.
  • pacifism: The belief that any violence is unjustifiable.
  • temperance: The movement to outlaw liquor in the United States.
  • women’s rights: The cause of promoting women’s equality to men.

Discussion Questions

  • How did Sojourner Truth’s childhood experiences affect her adult life?
  • What does Sojourner Truth’s story reveal about slavery and emancipation in the Northern states?
  • Sojourner Truth changed her name twice in her lifetime. What events prompted these changes? What do these changes tell us about the power of names?
  • Why did Sojourner Truth speak out about so many different issues?
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Suggested Activities

Themes

ACTIVISM AND SOCIAL CHANGE

New-York Historical Society Curriculum Library Connections

Source Notes
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