Sojourner Truth was born Isabella Baumfree around 1797 in New York to Dutch slaveowners, the Hardenberghs. The name, Sojourner Truth, was one she’d made up for herself. Sojourner, meaning a traveler on earth… one who spoke the truth.
Her parents, who went by Baumfree and Mau-Mau Bett, had 10 children and by the time she was born, all but she and her younger brother, Peter, had been sold into slavery. She spoke low Dutch, the first language used by Dutch immigrants who settled in New York.
Colonel Hardenbergh owned dozens of slaves, all of whom lived in the same dark, damp cellar. In 1806, she’d be put up for sale in a slave auction in a dusty yard in New York under a shade tree where a platform was set-up to display slaves. Prospective buyers would look into a slave’s mouth to see whether their teeth were good, they would squeeze her muscles, and examine her hands and feet to determine whether she was fit for work.
She would be sold to John Neely, a dry goods merchant from Twaalfskill, New York as a packaged deal with half a dozen sheep. There in the new household, she had to learn English and during the next few years, she would be sold two more times. First to Martin Shryver, a fisherman who ran a tavern… then John J. Dumont of New Paltz Landing for $300.
While at the Dumont’s, she fell in love with Robert, a slave from the nearby Catlin household but would be married to Thomas, another slave from the same household of John J. Dumont, in 1814. They lived together for about 10 years, she bore five children, four of whom lived through infancy—Diane, Peter, Elizabeth, and Sophia.
In 1817, three years into her marriage to Thomas, the New York State legislature passed a law that decreed all slaves born before July 4, 1799 would be freed on July 4, 1827, exactly ten years later. Her slaveowner, Mr. Dumont, made a promise in 1824 that he would fail to keep. He would promise her that if she’d continue to work hard for him, he’d release her one year earlier. Failing to keep his word, she took her youngest daughter Sophia, her belongings in a cotton pillowcase and on an autumn day in 1826 left the Dumont house. She would be helped by Isaac and Lisa Van Wagenen, a Quaker couple who paid John Dumont $20 to leave her in peace, and $5 for Sophia.
Back at the Dumont household, her youngest son, Peter, would be sold to a rich Alabama farmer, Mr. Fowler, by Solomon Gedney. At the time, New York State laws stated that owners could not sell slaves in other states. She took Solomon Gedney to court and won her case, along with her son’s freedom.
During her lifetime, she supported the cause of the Underground Railroad, she provided needed clothing, blankets, food, and recruited African American soldiers for the Union’s only Black regiment during the Civil War. She would meet Abraham Lincoln who on January 1, 1863 issued the emancipation proclamation. The proclamation declared "All persons held as slaves within any state or designated part of a state, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, henceforward and forever free."
Traveling from Battle Creek, Michigan with her grandson Sammy, Sojourner Truth carried with her a leatherbound book with mostly blank pages, which she called “The Book of Life.” Along the way, she’d ask those she’d met to sign their names. Arriving in Washington, D.C early in the fall of 1864, it would be late October before she and Abraham Lincoln met. He would sign her book, “For Aunty Sojourner Truth, October 29, 1864. A. Lincoln.”
Another grandson, James Caldwell, served with the all-Negro 54th Massachusetts Regiment, the first black Regiment drilled on Boston Common. On August 8, 1863, on Fort Wagner in South Carolina, 650 had been killed in the first charge. James Caldwell would be listed missing in action and never heard from again.
She was the first black woman to force her way onto an all-white street car in Washington, dashing after the car shouting, “I want to ride!” Refusing to only ride the “Jim Crow” car set for blacks, she walked where she wanted to go and after a few days went to the director of the street railroad to register a complaint. The Jim Crow car was taken out of service, and soon after a law was passed giving blacks the right to ride the streetcars with whites.
Conductors would continue to try to ignore her or throw her off. On one trip with philanthropist Laura Haviland, the conductor shook her by her shoulder and ordered her to get out. Recounting the story to friends, she told them that he asked Mrs. Haviland whether she belonged to her. To which Haviland responded, “No, she belongs to humanity.”
Within a few weeks, Sojourner Truth had completely integrated the streetcar system in Washington, D.C.
In the late 1860s, she collected thousands of signatures on a petition to provide land to resettle freed slaves, though Congress never took action.
“Equality of rights is the first of rights."
—Charles Sumner, Senate Chamber, April 26, 1870.
She became increasingly involved in the issue of women's suffrage, but broke with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton when Stanton stated that she would not support the black vote if women were not also granted the right.
“Throughout her life, Truth continually reminded her allies that black women were half the slave population, and that without changing the conditions of all women’s oppression, black women would not achieve freedom.”
Overcoming the challenges of slavery, illiteracy, poverty, prejudice, and sexism in her own lifetime, Sojourner Truth worked for freedom and to end racism by mobilizing thousands to support abolition, align their Christian faith with anti-slavery activism, and make firm the founding ideals of America in the lives of all.
She died at 3am on November 26, 1883 never having learned to read or write.
“The person who wants to see his fellow human beings hung by the neck until dead has a murderous spot in his heart.”
Like this post? Stop by and read "Wangari Maathai: Founder of the Green Belt Movement, Nobel Prize Winner” where she compares her upbringing on land owned by British settler D. N. Neylan to that of glorified slaves and “On Being Authentic: Sojourner Truth & Queen Elizabeth I.” You may also like the Pan-African Flag Inspired Color Blocked Gold Geometric Beaded Earrings.
- Claflin, Edward Beecher. Sojourner Truth and the Struggle for Freedom Barron's Educational Series, Inc., 1987.
- “The Emancipation Proclamation.” National Archives and Records Administration, National Archives and Records Administration,
- “Sojourner Truth.” NATIONAL ABOLITION HALL OF FAME AND MUSEUM.
- “This Far by Faith: Sojourner Truth.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service