- Women’s Rights Campaigner -
Sojourner Truth was born to slave parents – James and Elizabeth Baumfree. She was born around 1797 and, at birth, was named Isabelle or ‘Belle’. Her family, including 10-12 siblings, were kept on an estate in the town of Espouses – 95 miles north of New York. When her Dutch slave owner, Charles Hardenbergh died in 1806, Sojourner, aged nine, was sold for $100 to a new owner John Neely, who frequently beat her.
She was then sold between slave owners a few times, before moving to John Dumont of West Park, New York. Unlike previous owners, Dumont was more kindly disposed and her life improved somewhat, although she was harassed by Dumont’s wife.
Around 1815, Truth began a relationship with a slave from a nearby farm, called Robert. The relationship was strictly forbidden by Robert’s slave owner Charles Cation – because Cation would not own any children they had – but they met anyway. Unfortunately, Cation caught the pair and severely beat his slave, Robert. The beating was so savage that Robert later died from his injuries. The painful incident left a lasting legacy, haunting Truth throughout her life. Later she was told to marry a slave named Thomas, who was 20 years older than her. She had four children with Thomas and one child with either Robert or John Dumont.
New York was one of the earliest states to begin ending slavery. The process was started in 1799, but slavery wouldn’t officially end until 4 July 1827. However, Truth became restless for freedom and after Dupont reneged on an offer to grant her freedom, in 1826, one year before the change in the law, she took her infant daughter Sophia and left Dumont. She found work as a domestic servant with the Van Wagenen family.
This was an important time for Truth, free from the shackles of slavery; she had a religious conversion, becoming a devout, evangelical Christian.
She spent time with Elijah Pierson, a Christian Evangelist, and also ‘Prophet Matthias’ who founded the Matthias Kingdom communal colony. When Pierson died, Truth along with others was accused of stealing and poisoning him. But the case was thrown out of court. Later Truth brought a slander suit against those who had made the false claims (the Folgers) and Truth won her second case.
As well as abolitionist causes, Truth became more active in supporting women’s rights, religious tolerance, pacifism and prison reform. She joined the Northampton Association of Education and Industry in Northampton, Massachusetts, which was committed to promoting the abolition of slavery and supporting women’s rights. Here she met other prominent abolitionists, such as William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass. Although the group later disbanded she remained close to some of these prominent men and women.
Throughout the 1850s and 60s, she gave many speeches throughout the state – this was a time when public speaking was in high demand; in the absence of any radio or modern media, public speaking was a major source of information. The speaking circuit was mostly dominated by white men, so the presence of this imposing 6′ black woman was quite striking; her powerful words carried authenticity because she spoke from direct experience of slavery. She was also blessed with a powerful, low, resonant voice. She often travelled with her grandson, Sammy Banks who could read and write – this was a great help to the illiterate Sojourner.
Often audiences were quite hostile, with hissing and booing, even before she started. But Truth was able to adapt her speeches to the context of the time and was adept at dealing with hostile audiences. As her reputation grew, her reception became more favourable. She was popular with like-minded abolitionists, though her insistence on the equality of women was radical even for some progressives. She also had a strong sense of humour and was willing to tease those who tended to a more self-righteous activism or were concerned with frivolous posturing.
In 2009, she became the first black woman honoured with a bust in the U.S. Capitol and in 2014, she was included in the Smithsonian Institutions list of the 100 most significant Americans.
Clancy's comment: I always admire these women, especially the black women, who often fought for rights against insurmountable odds.