Sojourner Truth was born into slavery in New York in 1797. When born she was given the name, Isabella Baumfree. Her last name was given to her after her father’s owner, Mr. Baumfree. Truth was sold several times and eventually married a fellow slave to the Dumont family, his name was Thomas. Truth and Thomas had five children. Truth ran away from her owners with her youngest child. During this time when she was without an owner, New York law emancipated all slaves. This was in 1827. After the emancipation, she went to work for the Van Wagenen family. While employed by the Van Wagenen’s, Truth discovered that a member of the Dumont family, where she had previously been living as a slave, had sold one of her children to slavery in Alabama. Since this son had been emancipated under New York Law, Truth took her case to court. She sued in court and won her son’s return. This was Truth’s first experience with the courts, but unfortunately it would not be her last.
Truth then went through a period of religious conversion where she moved to New York City and joined a Methodist perfectionist commune. The commune fell apart a few years later due to allegations of sexual improprieties and even murder. Isabella herself was accused of poisoning another. She took her defense to the courts and again sued successfully, this time for libel. Still very much a religious woman, it was in 1843 that she actually took the name Sojourner Truth. Truth believed that she was being guided by the Holy Spirit who told her that it was now her calling to go out and preach. So, she became a traveling preacher (the meaning of her new name).
Sojourner Truth quickly gained notoriety as she did a great deal of public speaking and preaching. In the late 1840s she connected with the abolitionist movement, in 1850, she also began speaking on woman suffrage. Of all of Truth’s speeches, perhaps her most famous speech was called “Ain’t I a Woman?” and it was given in 1851 at a women’s rights convention in Ohio. Truth’s popularity allowed her to travel and meet other people of note, especially women of influence. In fact, Sojourner Truth met Harriet Beecher Stowe. Stowe would eventually be responsible for writing the introduction to Truth’s autobiography, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth.
Still very much a religious woman, Truth moved to Michigan where she joined another religious commune. This commune grew out of Methodism and later became the Seventh Day Adventists. During the Civil War Sojourner Truth helped in the war efforts by raising food and clothing contributions for black regiments. Truth met President Abraham Lincoln at the White House in 1864 and there she fought to end discrimination by giving specific examples of where segregation was occurring, such as the discrimination that segregated street cars by race. Her efforts for equality continued after the war as she spoke passionately about woman’s rights, and equality. She also work to take care of black refugees by helping them to get jobs following the Civil War.
Truth continued traveling and speaking well into her eighties. It was not until her grandson and close companion fell ill and died that she returned to Michigan. There her health deteriorated quickly and she died of infected ulcers on her legs in 1883. She was buried following a well-attended funeral in Battle Creek, Michigan.
Sojourner Truth is remembered and revered for many different reasons. Some see her as the first black woman to successfully take and win cases in court. Others think fondly of her because of her religious passions. Others see her as the mother of the woman’s movement and an advocate for both women and black equality.