Sojourner Truth: A Quest for a More Equal Society for African Americans and Women

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 for herself. Sojourner, meaning a traveler on earth… one who spoke the truth.

Her parents, Baumfree and Mau-Mau Bett, had 10 children. By the time she was born, all 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 housed in a dark, damp cellar. In 1806, she’d be put up for sale at a slave auction in New York under a shade tree where a platform had been set-up. Prospective buyers would look into a slave’s mouth... see whether their teeth were good, they would squeeze their muscles, and examine their hands and feet to determine whether they were fit for work.

She was sold to John Neely as a packaged deal with half a dozen sheep. In the Neely household, she learned English and during the next few years, 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 in 1814, ended up marrying Thomas, from the same household. 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. Mr. Dumont, promised that he’d release her in 1823. Failing to keep his word, on an autumn day in 1826, she took her youngest daughter Sophia along with her belongings in a cotton pillowcase and left the Dumont household.

Her youngest son, Peter, who remained at the Dumont household, would be sold to Alabama farmer, Mr. Fowler, by Solomon Gedney. At the time, New York State laws forbade slave owners from selling their slaves in other states. She took Solomon Gedney to court and won her case, along with her son’s freedom.

During her lifetime, Sojourner Truth 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 President Abraham Lincoln, issuer of the Emancipation Proclamation which declares that "...all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward shall be free; and that the Executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons."

Traveling from Battle Creek, Michigan with her grandson Sammy, Sojourner Truth carried with her a leatherbound book, 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, “For Aunty Sojourner Truth, October 29, 1864. A. Lincoln.”

Her 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. Refusing to only ride the Jim Crow car set for blacks, she ran after the street car shouting, “I want to ride!”

She went to the director of the street car to register a complaint. The Jim Crow car was taken out of service, soon after a law was passed giving desegregating street cars.

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.

Sojourner Truth became increasingly involved in the issue of women's suffrage. Throughout her life, she 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.

She died on November 26, 1883.

“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 "Elizabeth Freeman: First Enslaved African American Freed Under the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780." It’s believed that Elizabeth Freeman, Mumbet, was born between 1742-1744, to enslaved African parents in Claverack, New York. Ruled in their favor, Mumbet and Brom became the first enslaved African Americans to be freed under the Massachusetts constitution of 1780 in Brom & Bett v. Ashley which was argued before a county court in August 1871.

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