In honor of Black History Month, Linda Lacour Hobar is sharing about the lives of three extraordinary Americans who fought for freedom. Today she shares the amazing story of Sojourner Truth.
Sojourner Truth was born about 1797 to a slave couple in a Dutch settlement just north of New York City. (The date is not certain because typically the birth dates of children born into slavery were not recorded at that time.) Her birth name was Isabella Baumfree. Little Isabella was never sure if she was one of 12 from the same family, or one of 13, because most of her siblings were sold off before she was born. Isabella was raised speaking Dutch and kept a Dutch accent all her life. She was sold three times in her youth before she was torn away from a slave man she loved and forced to marry another. Isabella had five children, all of whom were born in bondage.
Though she stood nearly 6 feet tall, Isabella Baumfree, later known as Sojourner Truth, suffered grave humiliation and abuse at the hands of her masters. One owner beat her for not learning English quickly enough. Another owner, a female, did things so hideous to her slaves that Isabella would never speak of them. In New York, Isabella’s final owner promised her freedom when the state was a year away from outlawing slavery, but he later changed his mind and refused to grant liberty to Isabella! That was the last straw for this woman. The taste of freedom was too close and too strong for Isabella to let it slip away. She spun the last wool she believed she “owed” her master and then bravely escaped with her baby daughter! On foot with a baby, Isabella didn’t get very far, but she soon found safety with a couple named Isaac and Maria Van Wagenen, who hired her until her freedom was secured with the state of New York in 1827.
An “Altogether Lovely” Being
While with the Van Wagenens, Isabella had an unusual spiritual awakening. According to Isabella, she was visited by Jesus, an “altogether lovely” being, who cherished her without condition, without labor, and without prejudice. Isabella grew strong in her faith, and in 1843, she changed her name to Sojourner Truth to reflect her mission of “testifying of the hope that was in her.” In true Christian mercy, one of her burdens was to see the salvation of slaveholders, who she feared would suffer eternally for their sins.
One of Sojourner Truth’s most remarkable achievements as a former slave was going to court against slaveholders who sold her 5-year-old son illegally. (The boy, whom she had to leave behind when she escaped, had been sold to a slaveholder in Alabama when he should have been freed with other New York slaves.) Caring Quakers helped Sojourner Truth build her courtroom case, which, against all odds, she won! As a result, Sojourner’s son was returned to her. He was badly beaten, scarred, and frightened, but he was made free. The experience was difficult, but it fueled Sojourner with an uncanny self-confidence that led her to win two other court cases — one to protect her name from slander and another to convict a white streetcar conductor of assault and battery. (The conductor made the mistake of attacking her when she stood up for her right to ride in his streetcar!)
Sojourner Truth accomplished many amazing things with her newfound freedom. She preached Christ to hundreds, lectured at rallies, bought and sold property, published her narrative, campaigned for the government, gave aid to black soldiers in the Civil War, and sold her photograph (which she called her “shadow”) for revenue. Sojourner Truth personally met with Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, and many other notable Americans. If not fighting for the emancipation of slaves, she was speaking for the rights of women, who at that time were not allowed to vote.
“Ain’t I a Woman?”
One of the most famous speeches given by Truth was later titled “Ain’t I a Woman?” Though over time, the speech has been modified, Truth supposedly wowed a crowd in 1851 with the repeated question “Ain’t I a Woman?” to make a profound point for women’s suffrage.
Sojourner Truth was always outspoken, with a marvelous wittiness, to capture the hearts of her listeners. It’s no wonder that she has been well remembered and that her name has been attached to numerous causes and institutions. On a more personal note, Sojourner would say that one of her greatest moments was hearing her old master confess that he had been wrong to keep slaves. He claimed that he came to his senses under the influence of none other than the abolitionists of his day. (They did make a difference!) Sojourner’s warm response was this: “A slaveholding master turned to a brother! Poor old man, may the Lord bless him, and all slaveholders partake of his spirit!”
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