A famous speaker and activist for racial and gender equality.
Even though she spent the first 28 years of her life in slavery, and English was not her first language, Sojourner Truth grew to be one of the most well-known public speakers of the 19th century, advocating for equality between sexes and races. She became famous for broadening the notion of activism beyond the white, educated, middle-class women who primarily made up the suffrage movement.
Born as Isabella Baumfree into slavery, she was sold between four different masters in a Dutch-speaking community in New York. She escaped with her infant daughter after her master didn’t keep his promise to set her free, leaving her four older children behind. The Van Wagenen family, who hosted her after the escape, bought her freedom for $20.
She went on to sue her previous master for selling one of her boys and won, regaining custody of her son and was noted as the first black woman to sue a white man in a United States court and prevail. She spent her first decade as a free woman doing household work in New York City.
In her forties, she followed a calling to become a preacher, changed her name to Sojourner Truth (“because I was to travel up an’ down the land… to declare the truth to the people”), and moved to Florence, Massachusetts to join a Utopian community dedicated to equality and justice.
She toured and lectured for various reform causes, making a living as a public speaker, and became famous when her autobiography, ‘The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave’, was published.
In addition to speaking, she was active in many ways: trying to vote, marching, petitioning and contested the segregation in Washington DC by riding whites-only streetcars.
“I am a woman’s rights”
More Interesting Anecdotes:
- She fell in love with an enslaved man named Robert, but they were not allowed to marry since they had separate owners. Instead, she was forced to marry another man, named Thomas, with whom she had five children.
- Her most famous speech, presented at the 1851 Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, is called “Ain’t I a Woman?”, but reporters published different transcripts of the speech and historians question if she really did use the iconic phrase “Ain’t I A Woman?”.
- She was very fond of singing, both religious and secular songs.
- President Abraham Lincoln invited her to the White House in 1864.
- Since she didn’t know to read nor write, she dictated her autobiography to Olive Gilbert.
- When presenting a lecture in northern Indiana, audience members doubted that such a speaker could be a woman, so she showed her breast to shame them.
- After nine years of a fundraising campaign, the Sojourner Truth Memorial statue was erected at the corner of Pine and Park Streets in Florence, MA.
- Her story has inspired many contemporary musicians, including ‘Sweet Honey in the Rock’, an all-woman a cappella ensemble, who recorded “Sojourner’s Battle Hymn” in 1993.
- The exact year of her birth is unknown.