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Sojourner Truth – One of the foremost leaders of the abolition movement and the first black woman to take a white man to court and win

Goran Blazeski

Isabella Baumfree, also known as Sojourner Truth, was born into slavery around 1797 on an estate owned by Dutch settlers in Swartekill, Ulster County, New York. She was one of twelve children born to James and Elizabeth Baumfree.

When Sojourner was only nine years old, her owner died and she was sold off at an auction along with a flock of sheep for $100.

Sojourner Truth, albumen silver print, circa 1870

Sojourner Truth, albumen silver print, circa 1870

In the following few years, she was sold a couple more times. She was treated poorly and suffered from physical and sexual abuse at the hands of her masters until she became the property of John Dumont in 1810.

In 1815, Sojourner fell in love with a slave named Robert from a neighboring farm. However, his owner forbade the relationship because he would not own the children. They never saw each other again. Two years later she would marry an older slave named Thomas and bore five children.

In 1817, the state of New York passed a law granting freedom to slaves born before July 4, 1799, although the process of emancipating those people enslaved in New York was not complete until July 4, 1827. In 1826, Truth realized that her owner was plotting to keep her enslaved and escaped to freedom with her infant daughter, Sophia, leaving her husband and her children behind.

Truth's carte de visite, which she sold to raise money

Truth’s carte de visite, which she sold to raise money

When she learned that her son Peter, then five years old, had been illegally sold she sued Solomon Gedney, a wealthy white member of the bourgeoisie, for the recovery of her son. With the help of lawyers, she obtained Peter’s freedom and took him to New York City. She became the first black woman to take a white man to court and win.

She converted to Christianity and worked as a housekeeper for Elijah Pierson, becoming the personal maid of Robert Matthews, the self-proclaimed prophet Matthias.

She adopted the name ‘Sojourner Truth’ in 1843 after she had a spiritual experience and soon thereafter became a preacher in the “perfectionist” or pentecostal tradition, devoting her life to Methodism and the abolition of slavery.

She started traveling and giving speeches about abolition and in 1844 she joined the Northampton Association of Education and Industry in Northampton, Massachusetts.

In 1850, her memoirs were published under the title The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave by William Lloyd Garrison, a famous abolitionist. She also became an outspoken supporter of women’s rights and in May of 1851, Truth delivered a speech at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akron known as “Ain’t I a Woman?”

Sojourner Truth, circa 1864

Sojourner Truth, circa 1864

During the Civil War, she agitated for the inclusion of blacks in the Union Army and volunteered by bringing them food and clothes. Eventually, she met President Lincoln and personally thanked him for helping to end slavery.

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Sojourner Truth spent the last few years of her life in Michigan. She died of old age related problems in 1883.