Truth, Sojourner (b. 30 January 1797, Ulster County, N.Y.; d. November 26, 1883, Battle Creek, Mich.). African American abolitionist, women's rights advocate, and religious visionary.

Sojourner Truth was one of the best-known black women of her time, rivaled only by Harriet Tubman, yet her life remains surrounded by mystery. Truth, who was illiterate, left no written record apart from her autobiographical Narrative of Sojourner Truth, dictated to Olive Gilbert in the late 1840s. Much of what we know about her was reported or perhaps invented by others. More so than Frederick Douglass, her prolifically autobiographical contemporary, Truth has been transformed into myth. Feminists emphasize her challenge to restrictive Victorian codes of femininity; Marxist historians proclaim her solidarity with the working class. Her spirit has been invoked on American college campuses in struggles to create African American and Women's Studies programs. Yet most interpretations of Truth fail to understand the centrality of her evangelical religious faith.

In their writings, both Harriet Beecher Stowe and Douglass recount a central illustration of Truth's faith, which occurred at a protest gathering in Boston's Faneuil Hall after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Truth sat in the front row, listening to Douglass speak. Events had led him to abandon the nonviolent approach of moral suasion, and he exhorted southern slaves to take arms and free themselves. Truth accepted his frustration, but not his loss of faith in God's justice. In a voice that carried throughout the hall, she asked a single question: "Frederick, is God dead?"

By Truth's own account, this empowering faith came to her in a moment of divine inspiration after long and traumatic experiences under slavery, which included beatings by her master John Dumont and, according to Truth's biographer Nell Irvin Painter, sexual abuse by his wife. Religion lay at the heart of Truth's transformation from victimized slave to powerful and charismatic leader. Her decision to take the name Sojourner Truth was, in fact, the culmination of a long process of self-remaking.

Born around 1797 in Ulster County, New York, 80 mi north of New York City, she was the next to youngest of 10 or 12 children, and her parents, James and Elizabeth Baumfree, named her Isabella. Her slave parents were Dutch speaking, and Isabella first spoke Dutch. Isabella belonged to a series of slave owners, including, from 1810 to 1827, Dumont. When Isabella was about 14, she married Thomas, an older slave owned by Dumont. Between about 1815 and 1826, they had four children, Diana, Peter, Elizabeth, and Sophia, and perhaps a fifth who died.

During 1826 and 1827, Isabella had a series of life-changing experiences. After her son Peter was illegally sold and taken to Alabama, she successfully sued for his return with the help of local Quakers. She also joined the Methodist church after a profound conversion experience recounted in her Narrative:

 

God revealed himself . . . with all the suddenness of a flash of lightning, showing her . . . that he pervaded the universe "and that there was no place where God was not."

 

Her conversion led her to a lifelong involvement in predominantly white communes and fringe religions as well as to the reform activism for which she is better known. When New York abolished slavery in 1827, Isabella gained her freedom and traveled to New York City, taking Peter and leaving her daughters with their father.

In the city, Isabella did housework for a living and attended both the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church and a white Methodist church. She also began preaching at camp meetings, honing her oratorical skills and learning how to hold an audience. She became a follower of the self-proclaimed white prophet Matthias (Robert Matthews), joining his messianic commune from 1832 until its dissolution in scandal three years later. Little is known of the next several years of her life, although she evidently came under the influence of the Millerites, followers of William Miller, who calculated from biblical prophecies that the world would end in 1843.

In that year, Isabella made a complete break with her past, took the name she believed that God had given her Sojourner Truth and preached at Millerite gatherings in New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. By December, however, with the Millerite prophecy unfulfilled, she joined the Northampton Association, a white utopian community in Florence, Massachusetts. This community, embracing the most advanced ideas of social reform, opened new vistas for Truth. It was there that she first met Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison, and began speaking on social reform as well as religious salvation. Although the Northampton Association broke up in 1846, Truth remained in Florence until moving ten years later to live amongst spiritualist Progressive Friends in Battle Creek, Michigan, a Seventh-Day Adventist community.

Truth insisted on the need to include black and working women in any vision of social reform, grounding her speeches in her own experience as a black woman and former slave. She earned a reputation for oratorical power and a ready wit, as seen in the best-known speech of her career, delivered at an 1851 women's rights convention in Akron, Ohio. As reported at the time by Marius Robinson, editor of the Salem, Ohio, Anti-Slavery Bugle, Truth spoke proudly of her own strength and accomplishments, and by implication those of all women:

 

I have plowed and reaped and husked and chopped and mowed, and can any man do more than that? . . . And how came Jesus into the world? Through God who created him and woman who bore him. Man, where is your part?

 

However, Robinson's contemporary report of this speech is far less widely known than a later account by white reformer Frances Dana Gage (1808-1884).

In Gage's memorable retelling, Truth punctuated her speech again and again with the emphatic question, "And ain't I a woman?" Scholars have come to doubt the accuracy of Gage's account, which was published 12 years after the event in question. Gage portrayed Truth facing down a hostile crowd dominated by male skeptics of women's rights and female advocates of sharply distinct gender roles, which Nell Painter argues was Gage's own dramatic invention. In rendering Truth's words, Gage employed a nearly unreadable dialect that reflected contemporary literary conventions about black speech far more than it did Truth's own voice. And Painter believes that Truth probably never uttered the line that has become central to her historical image.

Although her subsequent career is less widely known, Truth continued her reform activism. During the Civil War, she journeyed to Washington, D.C., and met President Abraham Lincoln. From 1864 to 1868, she worked with the private National Freedmen's Relief Association and the federal Freedmen's Bureau, assisting freed slaves. In the 1870s, Truth participated in the American Woman Suffrage Association. She also championed a proposal to allot Kansas lands to destitute former slaves, making her last major speaking tour in a fruitless effort to rally support. When thousands of southern blacks, known as the Exodusters, actually moved to Kansas in 1879, Truth applauded them and offered her assistance. She returned from Kansas in 1880 and lived with her daughters in Battle Creek until her death.

 

Contributed By:

James Clyde Sellman