Sojourner Truth (née Isabella Baumfree)
~ 1797 – November 26, 1883
Notable: Abolitionist and Women’s Rights Activist
Isabella Baumfree was born in Ulster County, New York one of at least twelve children of the slaves, James and Elizabeth Baumfree. Her father had been captured in what is now Ghana while her mother was born in America, the daughter of slaves from Guinea. When Colonel Hardenbergh, who owned the Baumfrees died, they passed to his son, Charles, before being separated by his death in 1806.
By the age of 13-years-old Baumfree would be sold three times. First, around nine-years-old along with a flock of sheep for $100 to a brutal slave owner, John Neely. And the third time to John and Elizabeth Dumont of West Park, New York. Isabella’s first language had been Dutch and it was at this point that she learned to speak English.
In her late teens, Baumfree fell in love with Robert, another slave who lived nearby. While the couple wanted to marry their union was forbidden because having different owners would be a conflict should they have children. The couple was separated and Baumfree was pressured to marry Thomas, an older slave who was also owned by Dumont. Some sources state that Diana, Baumfree’s first child, was a product of her relationship with Robert while others claim that all five of Baumfree’s children were fathered by Thomas.
New York began a slow process of legislating the emancipation of slaves in the state a few years after Baumfree’s birth. During the time that Baumfree was owned by Dumont, he had promised to grant her freedom on July 4, 1826, if she was patient. Baumfree kept her word but when the agreed-upon date arrived, Dumont broke his promise and refused to free her. In retaliation, Baumfree simply walked off the Dumont property taking her infant daughter with her. But she had to leave a son and another daughter behind because they were still legally owned by Dumont.
She sought refuge with Isaac and Maria Van Wagenen in New Paltz, New York who purchased her freedom for $20 when Dumont attempted to recapture her. A year later New York finally passed the Anti-Slavery Law after which Dumont sold Baumfree’s youngest son Peter, who was five-years-old, into Alabama. This was illegal under the Anti-Slavery Law and gave Baumfree grounds to take Dumont to court. With the assistance of the Van Wagenens, she was able to win the case, becoming one of the first Black women to successfully sue a White man in court. In 1829, she relocated to New York City with her two youngest children in tow.
While in New York City, Baumfree worked as a domestic to support herself and her children. In the course of her work, she became a housekeeper for Elijah Pierson, a Christian evangelist. Baumfree had supposedly seen visions and heard voices since childhood and later became devoutly religious during her ordeal with Dumont. Now working for Pierson, she began evangelizing and became a member of his Retrenchment Society.
After a few years, she went to work for Robert Matthews, another preacher who some regarded as a con man. Pierson died shortly after and Baumfree and Matthews were accused of murdering him with poison before being acquitted. Baumfree would eventually win a slander suit against a couple who had attempted to implicate her in the murder.
But a few years later, Baumfree would experience another tragedy.
She and Peter had continued to live together until 1839 when he began working on a whaling ship. Baumfree received a few letters from her son while he was out at sea. But when the ship returned in 1842, Peter was nowhere to be found. Baumfree would never see or hear from Peter again.
In 1843, at around the age of 54, Baumfree answered a calling to spread the word of Christianity. She changed her name to Sojourner Truth and left New York City to travel the country. During her travels, she met various activists and groups and eventually began to speak out against slavery and for women’s rights. Over time she developed a reputation as a powerful speaker which drew large crowds. Her popularity allowed her to support herself by selling copies of her book, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth. And at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in 1851, she gave the famous “Ain’t I A Woman?” speech where she spoke about her experiences as a Black woman.
Like other notable Black abolitionists and prominent figures during the Civil War, Truth helped to recruit Black troops for the Union Army. She contributed to the National Freedman’s Relief Association and lobbied President Abraham Lincoln on behalf of the newly freed. She challenged segregation in Washington, D.C. by riding in streetcars that were intended for only White people. Truth tried to help the newly freed escape poverty by helping them to find jobs and lobbying the government to provide them with parcels of government-owned land in the West.
Truth’s daughters lived in Battle Creek, Michigan and she had settled there in the 1850s. It remained her home base as she continued to travel the country to assist the formerly enslaved and advocate for women’s rights. She felt it was important to support the causes of both Black people in general and women. As some Black male leaders were showing themselves to be sexist only concerned with the needs of Black men.
Sojourner Truth retired from her journeys as an activist in 1875 and died at her home on November 26, 1883.
- The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2019. “Sojourner Truth.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. November 22, 2019. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Sojourner-Truth.
- History.com Editors. 2020. “Sojourner Truth.” History.com. A&E Television Networks. January 16, 2020. https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/sojourner-truth.
- Michals, Debra, ed. 2015. “Sojourner Truth.” National Women’s History Museum. 2015. https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/sojourner-truth.
- “Sojourner Truth.” 2020. Biography.com. A&E Networks Television. June 24, 2020. https://www.biography.com/activist/sojourner-truth.
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