Sojourner Truth (1797-1883)
Former slave, abolitionist and women’s rights advocate Sojourner Truth, born Isabella, spent the last twenty-six years of her life in Michigan. Truth was bought and sold four times and spent the first twenty-nine years of her life as a slave in New York, performing demanding physical labor. In her teens, she married another slave and raised several children. A law that passed in 1817 should have made Truth free by the time she reached age twenty-five but by the time she was twenty-nine, she was no closer to her freedom and so ran away in 1827 to the home of a neighboring abolitionist family. The family bought Truth’s freedom from her master for twenty dollars. With the family’s help, Truth successfully sued for the return of her five-year-old son who was sold illegally to Alabama.
Truth joined the religious revivals occurring in New York State in the early 19th century and became a powerful and charismatic speaker. In 1843, she had a spiritual breakthrough and declared that the Spirit called on her to preach the truth and gave her a new name, Sojourner Truth. Truth’s journey brought her in contact with abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglas. She also gained exposure to women’s rights activists like Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and temperance advocates. Although she never learned to read or write, with the help of a friend she published her life and beliefs in 1850 in the Narrative of Sojourner Truth, which brought her national recognition.
In 1851, Truth went on a nation-wide lecture tour. She gave her most famous speech, “Ain’t I a Woman?” at a woman’s rights conference in Akron, Ohio, in 1851, where all of the other speakers were men. In her speech, she attacked the idea of women being the “weaker sex” said that men should not be afraid of women having equal rights to them. It became a classic women’s rights speech.
During the 1850’s, Truth made her home in Battle Creek, Michigan, where three of her daughters lived. She became active in the Underground Railroad, helping blacks escape to freedom. However, she spent most of the following twenty years continuing to travel the country.
When the Civil War started, Truth traveled through many states in support of the Union and encouraged many young men to join the Union cause. After the war ended, Truth met with Abraham Lincoln to thank him for helping to end slavery. While in Washington, D.C., Truth lobbied against segregation laws, playing an instrumental role in desegregating streetcars. While in D.C., she helped recently freed slaves become settled in a new life. She also worked in Virginia for a while, helping freed slaves find jobs. She advised them to use their freedom in responsible ways and prove their value to society through industrious work.
In the late 1860’s, Truth lobbied Congress to provide newly freed slaves with free land. She traveled around the country collecting thousands of signatures for the petition, however Congress never took action.
After decades of lecturing across the country, nearly blind and deaf, Truth spent the last few years of her life in Michigan. She died in 1883, at the age of 86 years old. Over one thousand people came to her funeral to honor the great orator and advocate of civil rights and equality for all. Truth is buried in Battle Creek, Michigan.**
- Bernard, Jacqueline. Journey Toward Freedom: The Story of Sojourner Truth. New York: Feminist Press at the City University of New York: Distributed by Taman Co., 1990.
- David, Linda and Erlene Stetson. Glorying in Tribulation: The Lifework of Sojourner Truth. East Lansing, Michigan: Michigan State University Press, 1994.
- Krass, Peter. Sojourner Truth. New York: Chelsea House, 1988.
- Mabee, Carleton and Susan Mabee Newhouse. Sojourner Truth - Slave, Prophet, Legend. New York: New York University Press, c1993.
- Narrative Published in 1850, written by Olive Gilbert.
- Ortiz, Victoria. Sojourner Truth. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1974.
- Painter, Nell Irvin. Sojourner Truth: a Life, a Symbol. New York: W.W. Norton, 1996.
- Painter, Nell Irvin, editor. The Narrative of Sojourner Truth. New York: Penguin Books, 1998.
- “Black History Month: The Crusade of Sojourner Truth,” Mackinac Center for Public Policy, 199, http://www.mackinac.org/article.aspx?ID=1649 (1 March 2006).
- Gillis, Jennifer Blizin. Sojourner Truth. Chicago, Illinois: Heinemann Library, 2006.
- “Today in History: November 26,” The Library of Congress, n.d., http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/today/nov26.html (1 March 2006).
- PHOTO: Library of Congress