A Brief Biography Of Sojourner Truth

Soujourner Truth is a symbol of both the Civil Rights and Women's Rights Movements. Find out more about her life here.

Sojourner Truth was born sometime in 1797; the actual date has been lost. Her parents, James and Elizabeth, named her, their youngest daughter, Isabella. She was often called Belle, until she chose the name Sojourner Truth for herself at the age of 46. Her early life provides a reason for her choice of name and later career.

Isabella was born a slave, to slave parents, in Ulster County, New York. Colonel Johannis Hardenburgh, a Dutch-speaking farmer who had served in the Revolutionary War, owned them. Only Dutch was spoken at the farm, and became Isabella's first language. Inadequate housing and sorrowful stories of how her brothers and sisters had all been sold before she was born marked her early years with her parents.

When Isabella was nine, she was sold to the Neelys for $100. Infuriated by her inability to speak and understand English, these owners beat her viciously, scarring her for life. After a couple of years, they sold her to a tavern-keeper, named Schriver. Here, Isabella was treated better, and gradually learned English, which she spoke with a Dutch accent for the rest of her life. Here also, she gained a reputation for being capable of hard work. In 1810, at the age of thirteen or so, she was sold for the last time. Her new owners were named John Dumont and his wife, Sally. She would be with them for sixteen years.

The relationship that developed between Isabella and the Dumonts was a complicated one. She was a slave, and more to them. She was treated both with great affection and great cruelty. Even after she was free, she continued to visit them, ask them for advice, and even nursed Mrs. Dumont as she was dying in 1846.

In 1815, Isabella was married to Thomas, a man many years older than she, and not of her choosing (a neighboring farmer owned her first love, Robert. This farmer refused to allow the courtship to continue, and beat Robert cruelly in order to end it.) She had five children with her husband, over many years of marriage.

Meanwhile, the country was undergoing changes that would have a profound impact on her life. In 1808, the United States government made the importation of slaves illegal, the first step in banning the slave trade. In the 1820s, New York decided to gradually free the slaves that resided in that state. All slaves that were born before 1799 would be free on July 4th, 1827. All those born after that date were compelled to remain slaves until the age of 28 for males, and 25 for females.

Isabella was eager to experience freedom, and bargained with her owner to be set free a year early, on July 4th, 1826, as a reward for her years of hard work. She worked hard in the fields and in the house, doing twice the work of most. During this last year she severely damaged her hand working in the fields, and John Dumont refused to honor his agreement, claiming that her injury had prevented her from doing the work he had expected from her. Frustrated, Isabella set herself to spinning that year's wool, determined to leave as soon as this last task was completed.

Taking her baby Sophia and a kerchief filled with her few belongings, Isabella left the Dumont farm one early fall morning. She did not plan on going far and making her master search for her for long (and possibly punish her husband and children in the meantime). By leaving she was making a statement about her own self-determination, and insisting that their agreement be honored. She quickly ran across an old acquaintance that advised she seek shelter with Isaac and Maria Van Wagenen, a Quaker couple. Quakers were firmly opposed to slavery; she would have no reason to fear while she was with them. Indeed, when she arrived at their home, she and her infant were greeted warmly, and as guests, not slaves nor servants.

When Dumont came for her, the Quakers sent him away with $25. This was not in payment for her, but rather a pay off for the master, so that he would no longer claim ownership. Isabella lived with the Van Wagenens for a little over a year, and took their last name as her own. During the year she stayed with them, she underwent a religious experience that left her extremely devout and began her transformation to becoming Sojourner Truth.

She also did something very unusual for the time--she sued a white man and won. Her 6-year-old son Peter had been given away as a present to Sally Dumont's sister. The sister's husband decided to sell Peter to a man that then illegally sold him to Alabama. (New York, as part of the law that was gradually eradicating slavery, refused to allow slaves in New York be sold to any other state, in order that these residents of the state would indeed gain their freedom as the designated date.) When Isabella learned that her son had been sold south, she asked the Van Wagenen's for advice. They suggested that she hire a lawyer and sue, and helped her raise the funds to pay the lawyer. When the owner and Peter appeared in court, Peter was afraid to admit that Isabella was his mother, for fear of his owner beating him. Since part of the case depended on proving that Peter was her son, this was an extra-hard blow to Isabella. Fortunately, the judge saw the child's fear for what it was, and found in Isabella's favor.

She decided to travel to New York City and work there, having heard of the large wages wealthy families to servants. Upon her arrival, she joined the Zion African Church, and through connections, found a job with Mr. and Mrs. Latourette. For the first time, she was able to experience a black community--something that had been lacking in the rural areas where she had lived, where there were only three or four slaves per farm, and those greatly separated from each other. Part of her community consisted of some of the sisters and one brother that had been sold before she was born, giving her a sense of family in her new life. She began preaching occasionally at this time, telling the story of her conversion, and singing her story to listeners.

Isabella began working as a housekeeper for a Mr. Pierson in the early 1830s, which would turn into one of the most distressing episodes of her already crisis-filled life. This was a time of self-styled religious prophets, and Isabella's employer thought he was a re-incarnation of Elijah from the Bible. Soon, he fell under the influence of Robert Matthews, who imagined himself, the Second Coming of Christ, and called himself the Prophet Matthias. These men were convincing and many found them appealing--Isabella was no exception. They moved, along with followers, to an estate in Western New York, where they tried an experiment in communal living (a popular fad at the time). When one of the members died, the entire group found themselves exposed in the paper--the leader was accused of murder, and Isabella was accused of poisoning two of the members. Matthews was acquitted of the murder (although he did spend some months in prison for beating his daughter severely.) Isabella was also acquitted, and successfully sued the couple for slander.

After this affair, she worked for Mr. and Mrs. Perez Whiting as a housekeeper, and took stock of what she wanted to do with her life. Her son Peter was working on a whaling ship, after having a few run-ins with the law. Her responsibilities as a mother were no longer pressing, as her children were now grown. On June 1, 1843, she gathered together a few belongings that she could easily carry, and left the Whitings. On the road, she gave herself a new name: Sojourner Truth. "Sojourner" because she planned on traveling, and "Truth" because she intended to preach: together, the name meant 'itenerant preacher'.

Before long, she was preaching and singing her story to revival groups, and becoming a popular preacher. In 1850 she decided to tell her story to Olive Gilbert, to publish. As a slave, Sojourner had not learned how to read and write, so she needed someone to write the story she told. Sojourner Truth had many reasons for writing her autobiography. The popularity of Frederick Douglas' book about his journey to freedom gave her hope that her book might earn enough money to permit her to purchase a home of her own. More importantly, she wanted to tell the story of a northern slave. Today, we frequently think of slavery as being exclusively southern, but this is far from the truth. Although slavery was more prevalent in the south, it did exist in the northern states as well. In 1800, ten percent of all slaves lived in New York City, according to Nell Irwin Painter's Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol (page 9). Sojourner Truth wanted people to know that no matter where it occurred, slavery was evil, and that abuses were nationwide.

She went around the northern states, selling her book, and telling her life story. In 1851, she spoke at the Women's Rights convention in Akron, Ohio, and gave a stirring speech on behalf of women--this became known as the "Ain't I a Woman?" speech, denouncing the idea of feminine fragility. In 1861 she was finally able to realize her dream of buying herself a home--in Battle Creek, Michigan. With the Civil War underway, she found herself busier than ever, working for the Freedman's Bureau, teaching newly freed slaves the skills they would need to be successful. Discrimination still existed--almost 100 years before Rosa Parks, Sojourner Truth fought for the right to ride the streetcars in Washington, DC and won.

Sojourner Truth worked until her death in November 1883, teaching, preaching, and hoping for the betterment of African-Americans, and women, black and white.

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