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Sojourner Truth was a nineteenth-century African American evangelist who embraced abolitionism and Women's Rights. A charismatic speaker, she became one of the best-known abolitionists of her day.
Born a slave around 1797 in Ulster County, New York, Isabella Baumfree, as she was originally named, lived with several masters. She bore at least five children to a fellow slave named Thomas and took the name of her last master, Isaac Van Wagener, in 1827. She was freed in 1828 when a New York law abolished Slavery within the state, and with the help of Quaker friends, she recovered a young son who had been illegally sold into slavery in the South.
In 1829 she moved to New York City and worked as a domestic servant. Since childhood she had experienced visions and heard voices, which she attributed to God. Her mystic bent led her to become associated with Elijah Person, a New York religious missionary. She worked and preached with Person in the streets of the city, and in 1843 she had a religious experience in which she believed that God commanded her to travel beyond New York to spread the Christian gospel. She took the name Sojourner Truth and traveled throughout the eastern states as an evangelist.
Truth soon became acquainted with the abolitionist movement and its leaders. She adopted their message, speaking out against slavery. Her speaking tours expanded as abolitionists realized her effectiveness as a lecturer. In 1850 she toured the Midwest and drew large, enthusiastic crowds. Because she was illiterate, she dictated her life story, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth, and sold the book at her lectures as a means of supporting herself.
In the early 1850s, she met leaders of the emerging women's rights movement, most notably Lucretia Mott. Truth recognized the connection between the inferior legal status of African Americans and women in general. Soon she was speaking before women's rights groups, advocating the right to vote. Her most famous speech was entitled Ain't I a Woman?
During the 1850s, Truth settled in Battle Creek, Michigan, but went to Washington, D.C., in 1864 to meet with President abraham lincoln. She remained in Washington to help the war effort, collecting supplies for black volunteer regiments serving in the Union army and helping escaped slaves find jobs and homes.
After the war she joined the National Freed-men's Relief Association, working with former slaves to prepare them for a different type of life. Truth believed that former slaves should be given free land in the West, but her "Negro State" proposal failed to interest Congress. Nevertheless, during the 1870s she encouraged African Americans to resettle in Kansas and Missouri.
"There is a great stir about colored men getting their rights, but not a word about colored women; if colored men get their rights and not colored women theirs, you see the colored men will be masters over the women, and it will be just as hard as it was before."
Truth remained on the public speaking circuit until 1875, when she retired to Battle Creek. She died there on November 26, 1883.
Davis, Peggy Cooper. 1996. "'So Tall Within'—The Legacy of Sojourner Truth." Cardozo Law Review 18 (November).
Painter, Nell Irvin, ed. 1998. Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Bondswoman of Olden Time, with a History of Her Labors and Correspondence Drawn from Her Book of Life. New York: Penguin Books.
Whalin, W. Terry. 1997. Sojourner Truth: American Abolitionist. Uhrichsville, Ohio: Barbour & Co.