By Christine Mirabal

Sojourner Truth (digitally restored), public domain

Sojourner Truth was a well-known African-American abolitionist and feminist who travelled across the country during the nineteenth century lecturing in support of the emancipation of enslaved people, women’s rights, and other issues. She resided in Northampton, Massachusetts for about 13 years and it was during these years that her public speaking career soared.

Born around 1797 in Ulster County, New York in the town of Hurley, she lived at a time when slavery still existed in New York state.  Called Bell, she was named Isabella, and like her parents, Elizabeth and James, she was enslaved by Colonel Johannes Hardenbergh. Dutch was her first language and from her mother she learned honesty and about God and the Lord’s prayer.  She had several older siblings, who were sold before she was born, and she had a younger sibling named Peter.  They lived in the cellar of the Hardenbergh home where they slept on the often wet floor.

At around age nine, Truth was taken from her parents and sold for the first time.  Her new owner, John Neely Jr., a yeoman, treated her cruelly.  He whipped her so badly, she carried the scars into her adult life.  She was sold a couple more times, before ending up with the Dumont family in New Paltz with whom she stayed for sixteen years enduring abuse. She was tall and unusually strong and worked hard both within the home and in the fields.

Truth had a relationship with an enslaved man from the Dumont farm named Thomas.  She had five children though only four lived past childhood and the paternity for each was not confirmed.  They were Diana, born around 1815, Peter born about 1821, Elizabeth born about 1824, and Sophia born in 1826.  The fifth child was born before or after Diana and died as a child.

Early one morning in the Fall of 1826, Truth walked away from slavery with her infant Sophia.  Dumont had promised her and Thomas freedom on July 4, 1826, a year before she and other adult enslaved people born before 1799 were to be emancipated as decided by a New York State law passed in 1817.  But he went back on his promise after Truth injured her hand and he claimed she owed him the work she was now unable to do.  Following what she felt was God’s direction, she walked for several miles and wound up at the home of Levi Roe, a Quaker.  He was dying and could not help her but advised her to visit Isaac and Maria Van Wagenen, a couple who didn’t support slavery.  When Dumont found her there, Isaac paid $25 for her and Sophia’s freedom and she was freed.  Her remaining children were not freed until they were in their twenties following state law, except for Peter whom she was able to free about a year after her emancipation when he was illegally taken out of state.  With the help of friends and lawyers, she used the courts to fight for his freedom, a remarkable feat.

Truth took on the Van Wagenen name calling herself Isabella Van Wagenen.  For a time, she worked for them and attended Methodist meetings.  One evening in 1827 when Dumont paid a visit, she planned on setting off with him when she suddenly felt she encountered God. She felt unworthy in His presence.  Shortly afterward, she had a vision of Jesus and she became joyful.  She felt He dwelled within her. The experience changed her life and she felt she was an instrument of God.

Truth moved to New York City with her son Peter in 1828.  She left her youngest daughter Sophia with Dumont.  She found work and attended Methodist churches.  She developed her preaching skills and engaged in reform work helping prostitutes.  Peter often got himself into trouble and Truth would help him out of it.  Eventually she grew tired of bailing him out and left him in prison when he was arrested for stealing in 1839.  He was able to get released with the assistance of Reverend Peter Williams Jr. whose name he sometimes used.  The Reverend secured work for him on a whaling vessel and Peter shipped out to sea.  He sent his mother a few letters for a couple of years. His final letter was dated September 19, 1841. She never heard from him again.

During the early 1830s, Truth spent some time in the Matthias Kingdom, a commune headed by a man who called himself the prophet Matthias.  Unaware he was a scoundrel, she lived with the group despite her disapproval of some of the behaviors. It fell apart soon after the death of one of its members. She was accused of trying to poison a couple in the group and she sued for slander. She won the case receiving $125.

On June 1st, 1843, she left New York City feeling she had failed in her goals and the city had become like a second Sodom.  She felt called by God to go east and that He had given her the new name of Sojourner Truth.  With a few meager belongings in a pillowcase, some provisions, and two York shillings, she travelled to Long Island and up through Connecticut. She went where she felt God led her and preached at meetings along the way. She stayed at people’s homes or at taverns, working where she could. She made new friends and her speeches captivated her audiences. She expressed her own ideas based on what she learned from the Bible which she preferred having children read to her since they didn’t give her their interpretation.

Finally, she arrived in Massachusetts, stopping at Chicopee and Springfield, before settling in Northampton for the winter at a cooperative utopian community called the Northampton Association of Education and Industry.

Her first impression of the building where members lived was not a positive one.  She found it stark and intended to stay only for a night.  But when she saw that the community was built on intellectual exchange, egalitarianism, and simple living, she changed her mind.  Blacks were accepted and everyone did physical labor and were paid similar wages.  There was freedom of speech and thought and the association supported the abolition of slavery and equal rights for women.

Truth became an active leader in the community along with Underground Railroad conductor, David Ruggles, and worked alongside whites doing household labor and preaching and singing at meetings.  She gave her first known antislavery speech in 1844 at a convention chaired by Ruggles.

At a religious camp meeting near Northampton in 1844, she had an alarming experience. A group of rowdy young men appeared and went about disrupting the gathering. At one point, they threatened to set fire to the tents. Truth ran into one of the tents and hid behind a trunk fearing for her safety since she was the only colored person in attendance. But after a while, she convinced herself that as a servant of the Lord, He would protect her and that she could calm the men. In her narrative, she said, “Have I not faith enough to go out and quell that mob, when I know it is written- ‘One shall chase a thousand, and two put ten thousand to flight’?” She said she “felt as if I had three hearts! and that they were so large, my body could hardly hold them!” She walked out into the night, found a small rise in the field, and began to sing a hymn about the resurrection of Jesus in her strong voice. The men came over and listened to her. She was able to soothe them and for about an hour, she spoke and sang to them. Finally growing weary, she asked for their promise to leave the camp if she sang one more song. They agreed and after her last song, they dispersed, leaving the meeting alone.[1]

When the Northampton Association dissolved in 1846, she remained in Northampton and lived with George W. Benson and his family. He was one of the founders of the community and brother-in-law to William Lloyd Garrison. In 1850, she bought a house on Park Street in Florence from Samuel L. Hill, another founder of the association. She eventually left Florence in 1857 to reside in the Harmonia commune in Michigan.

It was in Northampton that Truth first met the black activist, Frederick Douglass.  He was about twenty years younger and like her, he was previously enslaved. The two would lecture for the abolition of slavery at the same venues throughout the next decades. Douglass described her as amiable but unrefined with wit and wisdom and common sense. He didn’t always appreciate her way of disrupting his talks and the two disagreed on the way to end slavery. She was a pacifist while he advocated for physical force.[2]

It was also in Northampton that Truth published her slave narrative.  Since she could not read or write, she dictated her life story to Olive Gilbert, an abolitionist from Connecticut.  William Lloyd Garrison, who would visit Northampton, helped her get the book published along with his printer George Brown Yerrinton. Truth sold copies of her book at her talks to pay back the printing costs and to pay off the mortgage of her house.

Her daughters, Diana, Elizabeth, and Sophia joined her in Northampton at different points. When she moved on to Michigan, her daughters and grandchildren lived with or near her, particularly towards the end of her life.

Truth spent much of the 1850s speaking against slavery and for women’s rights. She would travel with friends and sometimes alone selling her books. Some of the places she visited included Worcester, Massachusetts where she participated with Douglass, Garrison and others at a women’s rights convention and Salem, Ohio, where she famously asked Douglass, “Is God gone?”, after he thundered for physical force to get rid of slavery.[3]

Her famous 1851 speech known as “Ar’n’t I a Woman” which she delivered at the Ohio Woman’s Rights Convention in Akron, has been a subject of debate. Some believe she didn’t utter those words in that speech as a 1863 report claimed. Instead she said, “I am a woman’s rights [sic.]” , according to a report in the Salem Anti-Slavery Bugle which was published at the time of the speech. She went on to say she had “as much muscle as any man, and can do as much work as any man.” [4]

Carte de Visite of Sojourner Truth (public domain)

She was well in her 50s by then and her oratory skills made her a popular speaker. Her speeches were a mix of humor and wisdom and she often spoke of her own experiences as an enslaved person. She also sang frequently and made up her own songs, sometimes selling them on sheets of paper. During the 1860s, she sold cartes-de-visite, photo cards of herself, to make a living. While she was often received warmly by audiences, she also had to endure insults, harassments, and threats. She was even arrested several times in Indiana in 1861.

During the Civil War she continued to be active giving speeches and supporting black soldiers.  She visited President Lincoln in October of 1864 with the help of Elizabeth Keckley, a personal attendant and dressmaker of the First Lady, and activist Lucy Colman who accompanied her on the visit. She also later visited Presidents Johnson and Grant.

Towards the end of the war and afterwards she worked as a counselor for the National Freedman’s Relief Association to help the freedpeople in the D.C. area. She assisted in relocating the refugees North and securing employment for them with the help of the several connections she had made throughout the years. She also helped desegregate the streetcars in Washington by persisting to ride in them despite not being welcomed by whites and even taking a conductor to court when he tried to push her out of a car and injured her. She won that case.

Truth remained active through the rest of her life, even though at times illness slowed her down. She campaigned for Grant during the 1868 and 1872 elections, spoke in support of the 15th amendment, women’s suffrage, and temperance, and in the early 1870s attempted to gather support for her proposal of relocating freed slaves to public lands in the West. She had petitions printed and distributed and travelled throughout the country for several years making speeches and trying to get people to sign her petitions so she could send them to Congress. Her campaign failed. But in 1879, thousands of blacks in the South moved to Kansas to escape persecution. They were called Exodusters. Truth was overjoyed and visited the state in September. Though in her 80s, she stayed for a few months giving speeches at black and white churches in support of the new residents.

Truth became ill in the Fall of 1883 with ulcers on her legs. She died on November 26th in her home in Battle Creek, Michigan. She was around 86, though there were legends that she was over 100. Her funeral was well attended and she was lauded by her fellow social reformers. A woman of intelligence, a passionate follower of Christ, and undeterred by her inability to read and write or by her poverty, she rose out of slavery to become a gifted orator who worked tirelessly for the betterment of African-Americans and women.

Sojourner Truth Statue, Florence, Mass.

Christine Mirabal is a longtime resident of the Connecticut River Valley. She volunteers with the David Ruggles Center for History and Education, performs improv, and writes poetry and skits.

================================

[1] Narrative of Sojourner Truth; A Bondswoman of Olden Time, With a History of Her Labors and Correspondence Drawn from her “Book of Life; Also, a Memorial Chapter, edited with an Introduction and Notes by Nell Irvin Painter, written for Sojourner Truth by Olive Gilbert, (Penguin Books, 1998).

[2] Sojourner Truth, A Life, A Symbol by Nell Irvin Painter, (W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1997).

[3] Painter, Sojourner Truth, A Life, A Symbol, 1997.

[4] Painter, Sojourner Truth, A Life, A Symbol, 1997.

Other Sources:

Sojourner Truth’s America by Margaret Washington, (University of Illinois Press, 2009)

Sojourner Truth – Slave, Prophet, Legend by Carleton Mabee with Susan Mabee Newhouse, (New York University Press, 1993).

One thought on “Sojourner Truth

  1. Hey, Christine, thanks for this terrific article. I’d love to read more of your stuff.
    Miss your playing with you at improv! ❤️
    Susan O’Hara

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s