Sojourner Truth

Sojourner Truth


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Isabella Baumfree, a black Ameerican abolitionist and women`s rights activist, was born in slavery in Swartekill, New York, around 1797. When her former owner sold one of her sons to a person in Alabama, she sued and successfully recovered him.

After 1843, she adopted the name Sojourner Truth. She lived until 1883.


Sojourner Truth: Ain't I A Woman?

"I sell the shadow to support the substance." -- Sojourner Truth. Carte de Visite, circa 1864, in the collections of the Library of Congress (http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/97513239/) Born into slavery in 1797, Isabella Baumfree, who later changed her name to Sojourner Truth, would become one of the most powerful advocates for human rights in the nineteenth century. Her early childhood was spent on a New York estate owned by a Dutch American named Colonel Johannes Hardenbergh. Like other slaves, she experienced the miseries of being sold and was cruelly beaten and mistreated. Around 1815 she fell in love with a fellow slave named Robert, but they were forced apart by Robert’s master. Isabella was instead forced to marry a slave named Thomas, with whom she had five children.

In 1827, after her master failed to honor his promise to free her or to uphold the New York Anti-Slavery Law of 1827, Isabella ran away, or, as she later informed her master, “I did not run away, I walked away by daylight….” After experiencing a religious conversion, Isabella became an itinerant preacher and in 1843 changed her name to Sojourner Truth. During this period she became involved in the growing antislavery movement, and by the 1850s she was involved in the woman’s rights movement as well. At the 1851 Women’s Rights Convention held in Akron, Ohio, Sojourner Truth delivered what is now recognized as one of the most famous abolitionist and women’s rights speeches in American history, “Ain’t I a Woman?” She continued to speak out for the rights of African Americans and women during and after the Civil War. Sojourner Truth died in Battle Creek, Michigan, in 1883.

Sojourner Truth (1797-1883): Ain't I A Woman?
Delivered 1851
Women's Rights Convention, Old Stone Church (since demolished), Akron, Ohio

Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter. I think that 'twixt the negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what's all this here talking about?

That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain't I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain't I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man - when I could get it - and bear the lash as well! And ain't I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain't I a woman?

Then they talk about this thing in the head what's this they call it? [member of audience whispers, "intellect"] That's it, honey. What's that got to do with women's rights or negroes' rights? If my cup won't hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn't you be mean not to let me have my little half measure full?

Then that little man in black there, he says women can't have as much rights as men, 'cause Christ wasn't a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.

If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back , and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.

Obliged to you for hearing me, and now old Sojourner ain't got nothing more to say. [1]

But Wait!
There is some controversy regarding Sojourner Truth's famous 'Ain't I a Woman?' Speech listed above. There are different versions of the speech. The popular 'Ain't I a Woman' Speech was first published by Frances Gage in 1863, 12 years after the speech itself. Another version was published a month after the speech was given in the Anti-Slavery Bugle by Rev. Marius Robinson. In Robinson's Version the phrase 'Ain't I a Woman' is not present.

Compare the speeches and decide yourself at the Library of Congress or at The Sojourner Truth Project. [2]


[1] This text is part of the Internet Modern History Sourcebook.
[2] This article first appeared on the Women's Rights National Historical Park website.


Sojourner Truth

Sojourner Truth was an African American abolitionist and women’s rights activist who escaped from slavery in New York in 1826. She began as an itinerant preacher and became a nationally known advocate for equality and justice, sponsoring a variety of social reforms, including women’s property rights, universal suffrage and prison reform.

She was born Isabella Baumfree in 1797 on the estate of Colonel Johannes Hardenbergh in Swartekill, a Dutch settlement in upstate New York. She was one of 13 children born to Elizabeth and James Baumfree, who were slaves on the Hardenbergh plantation. Both the Baumfrees and the Hardenberghs spoke Dutch in their daily lives. After the colonel’s death, ownership of the Baumfrees passed to his son Charles.

After the death of Charles Hardenbergh in 1806, the Baumfrees were separated. Nine-year-old Isabella was sold at an auction with a flock of sheep for $100 to John Neely, whose family only spoke English. Isabella still spoke only Dutch, and her new owners beat her repeatedly for not understanding their commands.

When her father came to visit, she pleaded with him to help her. Soon after, Martinus Schryver purchased her for $105. He owned a tavern, and although the atmosphere was crude and morally questionable, it was a safer haven for Isabella.

But a year and a half later, in 1810, Isabella was sold to John Dumont of New Paltz, New York. There she toiled for 17 years. Because of the cruel treatment she suffered at the hands of Dumont and his wife Sally, Isabella learned to speak English quickly, but had a Dutch accent for the rest of her life. It was during this time that she began to find refuge in religion – beginning the habit of praying aloud when scared or hurt.

Family Ties
Around 1815, at age 18 Isabella fell in love with Robert, a slave from a neighboring farm. The two had a daughter, Diana. Robert’s owner forbade the relationship, since Diana and any subsequent children produced by the union would be the property of John Dumont. His owner beat him savagely (“bruising and mangling his head and face”), bound him and dragged him away. Robert and Isabella never saw each other again.

In 1817, Dumont compelled Isabella to marry an older slave named Thomas. Their marriage produced a son, Peter (1822), and two daughters, Elizabeth (1825) and Sophia (1826). Isabella and her husband were promised their freedom for faithful service on July 4, 1826, one year before all adult slaves in New York would be freed by the state. Dumont reneged on his promise.

Free at Last
Isabella was infuriated when Dumont would not allow her to go free, but she continued working until she felt she had done enough to satisfy her sense of obligation to him – spinning 100 pounds of wool. She then escaped before dawn with her infant daughter Sophia. She later said: “I did not run off, for I thought that wicked, but I walked off, believing that to be all right.”

Isabella wandered, not sure where she was going, and prayed for direction until she arrived at the home of white Methodists Isaac and Maria Van Wagener. Soon after, Dumont arrived, insisting she come back and threatening to take her baby when she refused. Isaac offered to buy her services for $20 until the state emancipation took effect, which Dumont accepted.

Soon thereafter Isabella learned that her five-year-old son Peter had been sold into slavery in Alabama. A friend directed her to activist Quakers, who helped her make an official complaint in court. After months of legal proceedings, Peter was returned to her, scarred and abused but alive. The case was one of the first in which a black woman successfully challenged a white man in a United States court.

During her time with the Van Wagenens, Isabella had a life-changing religious experience – becoming “overwhelmed with the greatness of the Divine presence” and inspired to preach. She began attending the local Methodist church, and in 1829, left Ulster County with a white evangelical teacher named Miss Gear.

In 1829 Isabella moved to New York City, where she worked as a housekeeper for Christian evangelist Elijah Pierson and lived among a community of Methodist Perfectionists, who met outside of the church for ecstatic worship. Pierson treated her as a spiritual equal and encouraged her to preach.

Through the perfectionists, Isabella fell under the spell of Robert Matthews, also known as Prophet Matthias, for whom she also worked as a domestic. Matthews had a growing reputation as a con man, and Isabella lived with his cult from 1833 to 1834, with the activities becoming increasingly bizarre. Shortly after Isabella changed households, Elijah Pierson died, and Matthews and Isabella were accused of poisoning Pierson in order to benefit from his personal fortune. Both were acquitted.

While living in New York, Isabella attended the many camp meetings held around the city, and she quickly became known as a remarkable preacher whose influence “was miraculous.” In 1843, she was “called in spirit,” and the spirit instructed her to leave New York and travel east to lecture under the name Sojourner Truth. The name signified her role as an itinerant preacher, her preoccupation with truth and justice, and her mission to teach people “to embrace Jesus, and refrain from sin.”

In 1844, Sojourner Truth joined the Northampton Association of Education and Industry in Northampton, Massachusetts. This group of 210 members lived on 500 acres of farmland, raising livestock, running grist and saw mills, and operating a silk factory. Founded by abolitionists, the organization supported a broad range of reforms including women’s rights and pacifism. There she met and worked with leading abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass and David Ruggles. Unfortunately, the community was not profitable enough to support itself.

Career in Social Reform
Although the Northampton community disbanded in 1846, Sojourner Truth’s career as an activist was just beginning. She then lived with George Benson, one of the Association’s founders. Since she could not read or write, Truth began dictating her memoirs to Olive Gilbert, another former member. In 1850, Benson’s cotton mill failed and he left Northampton. Truth bought a home there for $300.

Truth began touring with abolitionist George Thompson, speaking to large crowds on the subjects of slavery and human rights. In 1850 William Lloyd Garrison published her memoirs, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave, which detailed her suffering as a slave. It gave her an income and increased her speaking engagements, where she sold copies of the book.

Sojourner Truth traveled extensively as a lecturer after the publication of her book. Her speeches were based on her unique interpretation of the Bible – as a woman and a former slave. She spoke about women’s rights and the abolition of slavery, often giving personal testimony about her experiences as a slave. She was very tall, towering around six feet, and displayed a commanding presence.

Her preaching brought her into contact with abolitionists and women’s rights crusaders, and Truth became a powerful speaker on both subjects. In 1851, she gave a speech at the Ohio Women’s Rights Covention in Akron, Ohio. This is an excerpt from that speech:

… that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him. If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back , and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.

That same year, Sojourner Truth spoke at the first National Women’s Rights Convention in Worcester, Massachusetts. As her reputation grew and the abolition movement gained momentum, she drew increasingly larger and more hospitable audiences. She was one of several escaped slaves, along with Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, to rise to prominence as an abolitionist leader and a testament to the humanity of enslaved people.

Truth toured Ohio from 1851 to 1853, working closely with Marius Robinson to publicize the antislavery movement in the state. Even in abolitionist circles, however, some of Truth’s opinions were considered radical. She sought political equality for all women and chastised the abolitionist community for failing to seek civil rights for black women as well as men. She openly expressed concern that the movement would fizzle after achieving victories for black men, leaving both white and black women without suffrage and other key rights.

Truth later became involved with the popular Spiritualism religious movement of the time, through a group called the Progressive Friends, an offshoot of the Quakers. The group believed in abolition, women’s rights, non-violence and communicating with spirits. In 1857, she sold her house in Northampton and bought a home in Harmonia, Michigan (just west of Battle Creek), to live with the Spiritual community.

Civil War Activism
Sojourner Truth put her reputation to work during the Civil War, supporting the Union and helping to recruit black troops for the Union Army. She encouraged her grandson James Caldwell to enlist in the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, one of the first official African American units. The regiment gained recognition on July 18, 1863, when it led an assault on Fort Wagner near Charleston, South Carolina, where its commanding officer, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, and 29 of his men were killed.

In 1863, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s article “The Libyan Sibyl,” a romanticized description of Sojourner Truth, appeared in the Atlantic Monthly. In 1864, Truth worked with the National Freedman’s Relief Association in Washington, DC. On at least one occasion, she met with President Abraham Lincoln. She also worked among freed slaves at a government refugee camp on an island in Virginia.

True to her broad reform ideals, Truth continued to agitate for change even after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. She took up the issue of women’s suffrage. She was befriended by suffrage leaders Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, but disagreed with them on some issues, most notably Stanton’s threat that she would not support the black vote if women were denied it.

After the Civil War ended, she continued working to help the newly freed slaves through the Freedman’s Relief Association, then the Freedman’s Hospital in Washington. In 1867, she moved from Harmonia to Battle Creek, converting William Merritt’s “barn” into a house, for which he gave her the deed four years later.


Sojourner Truth Memorial
In Florence, Massachusetts

Later Years
In 1870, Sojourner Truth began campaigning for the federal government to provide former slaves with land in the “new West.” In 1874, after touring with her grandson Sammy Banks, he fell ill and she developed ulcers on her leg. Sammy died after an operation. She was successfully treated by veterinarian Dr. Orville Guiteau, and headed off on speaking tours again, but had to return home due to illness once more.

The movement to secure land grants for former slaves became a major project of her later life. She argued that ownership of private property, and particularly land, would give African Americans self-sufficiency and free them from a kind of indentured servitude to wealthy landowners. Although Truth pursued this goal forcefully for seven years, she was unable to sway Congress.

The 1879 spontaneous exodus of tens of thousands of freedpeople from southern states to Kansas was the culmination of one of her most fervent prayers. She spent a year there helping refugees and speaking in white and black churches trying to gain support for the “Exodusters” as they tried to build new lives for themselves. Truth saw the Exodusters, fleeing violence and abuse in the Reconstruction South, as evidence that God had a plan for African Americans.

Truth continuted to make a few appearances around Michigan, speaking about temperance and the need for prison reform in Michigan and across the country. In July of 1883, troubled with ulcers on her legs again, she sought treatment through Dr. John Harvey Kellogg at his famous Battle Creek Sanitarium. It is said he grafted some of his own skin onto her leg.

Until old age intervened, Truth continued to speak passionately against social injustices. She was an outspoken opponent of capital punishment, testifying before the Michigan state legislature against the practice. She also championed prison reform in Michigan and across the country. While always controversial, Truth was embraced by a community of reformers including Amy Post, Wendell Phillips and Lucretia Mott – friends with whom she collaborated until the end of her life.

Sojourner Truth died at her home in Battle Creek, Michigan, on November 26, 1883. She was buried in Battle Creek’s Oak Hill Cemetery alongside to her grandson.

In 1890, Frances Titus, who had published the third edition of Sojourner Truth’s Narrative in 1875 and had served as her traveling companion after Sammy died, collected money and erected a monument at the gravesite, then commissioned artist Frank Courter to paint the meeting of Sojourner Truth and President Lincoln.


History

Sojourner House, named after the great African American preacher, Sojourner Truth, was founded in 1991 by a group of women from Fox Chapel Presbyterian Church . Twenty-six representatives from Pittsburgh’s social service agencies gathered to identify potential solutions to problems that affect women’s lives.

During this gathering, it was discovered that many women do not seek help for their addictions for fear they will lose their children and that there were far fewer rehabilitation programs for women than men. The consensus of the meeting was that drug and alcohol addicted mothers with their children were the group in greatest need and should be the prime target for significant aid.

The identified need was so urgent and challenging that these representatives agreed to serve as a provisional board of directors for the newly proposed project. Action Housing , Women’s Center and Shelter , Bethlehem Haven , Allegheny County Department of Welfare , and East End Cooperative Ministry were among the agencies and organizations represented.

Between 1991 and 1994, Sojourner House operated under the umbrella of East End Cooperative Ministry. In 1994, Sojourner House successfully applied for its own nonprofit status and became licensed by the Pennsylvania Department of Health as a “women with children” residential rehabilitation facility.

Its goal is to help families to successfully continue their recovery journey, focusing on strengthening family relationships, promoting self-sufficiency, long term sobriety, and mental health stability.

With this in mind, Sojourner House created a sister project called Sojourner House MOMS (Motivation, Opportunities, Mentoring, and Spirituality). Incorporated in 2004, Sojourner House MOMS provides permanent, supportive housing to homeless, dual diagnosed mothers and their children. The award-winning MOMS project originated at the request of Negley Place Neighborhood Alliance (NPNA), a local grassroots organization. MOMS initiated as a partnership among Sojourner House, Inc., NPNA, and East Liberty Development, Inc. Sojourner House MOMS is based on the idea that with stable housing and appropriate services, women can maintain sobriety, achieve self-sufficiency, and build a stronger family life for their children.

The major successes of the program include the creation of individual apartments for 16 larger families in four buildings, scattered through the East Liberty neighborhood. The project was divided into two phases: Phase I, providing six three-bedroom units, opened in 2004, and Phase II, providing ten three- and four-bedroom units, opened in May of 2009. The four properties were run-down nuisance properties known for hosting drug dealing and prostitution, and were originally identified by NPNA because of their blighting effect on the entire community. NPNA’s vision to rebuild their neighborhood by turning these vacant properties into safe, supportive, drug-free, affordable housing has enhanced the neighborhood. In 2012, Sojourner House leased five additional apartments to bring the total to 21. Today, the apartment buildings are interspersed in a healthy, diverse neighborhood and have the full support of neighbors.

To further enhance the program, Sojourner House MOMS transformed two formerly vacant lots owned by the City of Pittsburgh into a viable, safe, and environmentally sustainable play yard called “MOMS Green.” This play yard is used by the families of the MOMS program as well as neighbors, encouraging interaction between program participants and the community. MOMS Green provides a safe, creative place for children to play and was built using re-purposed materials.

In April of 2012, the Allegheny County Department of Human Services asked Sojourner House MOMS to acquire two housing programs that had been operated by Primary Care Health Services. ACDHS chose Sojourner House MOMS for this request because of the program’s reputation for excellence, and because the addition of the properties aligned with the mission of MOMS. After of a year of due diligence through a board-led Ad Hoc Committee, the Boards of Sojourner House and Sojourner House MOMS voted to adopt the two buildings and their programs, Sankofa and Open Arms, and the transfer became effective in October of 2013. Over $1,200,000 in foundation and government funding was committed toward the effort to repair and upgrade these facilities. Together, the adopted programs provide an additional 21 units of supportive housing to women and their children experiencing homelessness.

In 2015, MOMS began supporting homeless fathers with children in addition to homeless mothers with children. The Sojourner House MOMS program consistently meets or exceeds the outcomes set by HUD for permanent housing by helping its families gain employment and/or increase their household income and achieve self-sufficiency. In 2018, MOMS created a second program, the Supportive Housing Program, which offers transitional housing and comprehensive support services to families in recovery for up to one year.

Our service philosophy is family-focused. We want to help a family to achieve its goals by providing safe and affordable housing, support services, necessary referrals for the family, and an atmosphere of community encouragement.


Childhood and Life Before Escape

Sojourner Truth was born Isabella Baumfree, around 1797 (although the actual date is unknown), on the estate of Colonel Johannes Hardenbaugh, in Ulster County, New York. Her father was James Baumfree, a captured man from what is today known as Ghana. Her mother was the daughter of two slaves from modern-day Guinea.

In 1806, after Hardenbaugh and his son, Charles, had both died, she was sold at the age of 9, with a flock of sheep for the price of $100. John Neely bought her. He was cruel and unkind and beat her regularly. Over the next couple of years, Sojourner Truth was bought and sold several times. Eventually she was purchased by John Dumont, who lived in West Park, New York. When she was about 18, Sojourner Truth fell in love with a neighboring slave, named Robert however once his master found out, they were forbidden from seeing each other. In 1817 Dumont forced Truth to marry Thomas, an older slave, and they had three children together. New York put legislation in place to emancipate slaves by July 4, 1827. Dumont promised Truth that he would free her in 1826, but did not follow through. So she escaped, taking her infant daughter, Sophia, with her.


Sojourner Truth’s battle cry still resonates 170 years later

Her famous “Ain’t I a woman?” speech helped launch the women's suffrage movement and symbolizes America’s ongoing fight for fairness and equity.

For Barbara Allen, the ironies of traveling to Angola, Indiana, on June 6 are fairly obvious. She’ll be participating in the unveiling of a statue at the Steuben County Courthouse honoring the legendary formerly enslaved abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth.

The first irony is that Sojourner Truth is Barbara Allen’s sixth great-grandmother, born in 1797 in New York State and who died in Battle Creek, Michigan in 1893. The second irony is that at least once during Truth’s Indiana tour in 1861, she was arrested for speaking. It was a risk she took every time she stepped on a podium, and Allen can feel that resolve flowing through her veins.

“Just like she would holler for some rights, I’ve always had the need to speak up and speak out. And that’s where my personality comes from. When I look back on my own life, I think, ‘Oh my God, life just goes in circles, and I’m in that circle.’ “

That full-circle moment amplifies the growing stature of Truth, an iconic symbol of the interwoven threads in the fight for racial and gender justice in America. Allen has written a children’s book about her revered ancestor, “Remembering Great Grandma, Sojourner Truth,” which she self-published in January. She hopes her own public readings and speeches will help her three granddaughters connect more deeply with their iconic legacy. At a time when the country is embroiled in wrenching debates about the need to acknowledge past grievous wrongs, Sojourner Truth’s story of courage, strength and self-made mastery offers an important template for the pursuit of fairness and self-expression.

Truth was a commanding presence without uttering a word, standing at nearly 6 feet tall. Born Isabella Baumfree, the details of her life are vivid and wrenching. She was sold on multiple auction blocks, raped by at least one owner, and watched her own children sold. Truth also became one of the first Black women in American history to win a legal case against a white man for selling her son Peter.

With her powerful voice, inflected with the Dutch accent of her former enslavers, Truth instinctively used the power of her bearing and persona to captivate audiences. She wore ornate bonnets and clothing to disarm the stereotypical expectations of the people she encountered. In many ways, Truth demonstrated a keen pre-social media savvy about how to market herself in the feminist and abolitionist realms.

Her spiritual awakening, her drive to travel throughout America condemning slavery and demanding equality for women all seemed to coalesce in her legendary remarks at the May 29, 1851 Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akron—the famous “Ain’t I A Woman?” speech, delivered on the spot with no preparation, as were all of her speeches. It has since been performed on countless stages, recited at festivals and delivered during school competitions as a declaration of strength, pride and overcoming obstacles.

“The respect they showed, and the way they talked about how her life inspired them, it was a little overwhelming.”

Though Truth and other Black female activists chafed at the comparisons white feminists drew between their societal status and slavery, they agreed on the urgent need for fairness and equity in the quest for women’s rights. As Johns Hopkins historian Martha S. Jones notes in her 2020 book “Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote and Insisted on Equality for All,” Truth never wavered in her belief that she was best suited to symbolize the need for gender justice. Jones writes:

“Truth had waited her turn in Akron, following women whose remarks showcased their high levels of education, status, and experience. She could not match such credentials. Still, during her years on the lecture circuit she had learned to riff off the remarks that preceded her own, and it paid off. Truth reframed the convention, resetting its goals as defined from the perspective of a Black woman. She began, ‘I want to say a few words about this matter. I am a woman’s rights.’ There, as she was, unlettered and unrefined, Truth made the case that she was the truest embodiment of women’s rights. Slavery was no mere metaphor and the labor it demanded had made Truth the equal of any man.”

“I have as much muscle as any man and can do as much work as any man,” Truth said in Akron.

“Then they talk about this thing in the head—what’s this they call it? (an audience member whispers ‘intellect’) That’s it, honey. What’s that got to do with women’s rights or negroes rights? If my cup won’t hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn’t you be mean not to let me have my little half measure full?”

There’s yet another irony contained in the lore connected to Truth’s speech: it’s more than likely that she never actually said the words, “Ain’t I A Woman?” When an official document outlining the proceedings of the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention was published, Truth’s speech was not included.

But journalists Marius R. Robinson and Emily Robinson, who wrote for the Anti-Slavery Bugle, were in the audience and provided a transcription of her remarks for that newspaper. Twelve years after the Convention, abolitionist and women’s rights activist Frances Dana Barker Gage published her own interpretation of the speech. (The Sojourner Truth Project has produced an online comparison of the two main written versions.)

It's easy to get tangled up in those kinds of details about an historical icon’s life. Allen offers another example: though in the speech Truth declares that she bore 13 children, historians have only been able to confirm the birth of five, the youngest of which was Allen’s fifth great grandmother, Sophia.

After years of keeping the vivid stories she’d learned during bedtime to herself, Allen says it was only when the city of Battle Creek erected a statue in her honor in 1999 that the truest depths of her link to Sojourner Truth set in.

“It was the way people in the crowd looked at me, and there were 3,000 people in that crowd,” Allen says. “The respect they showed, and the way they talked about how her life inspired them, it was a little overwhelming.”

And when local historian Michael John Martich and his wife Dorothy introduced themselves to Allen, her fate was sealed.

“They had copies of Sophia’s death certificate and ones belonging to other relatives. My mother didn’t really have much information about Sophia, so I all I did know is that (Truth) went back for one of her children. That’s when I understood how much people loved and revered her, and I knew I had a responsibility to make sure that my life honors her.”

Truth is also part of the ongoing discussion about who America honors in public spaces. In August of 2020, as part of the commemoration of American women’s suffrage, a bronze monument depicting 19th century women’s rights activists Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Sojourner Truth was unveiled in New York City’s Central Park, the first to depict real women instead of mythical females like Alice in Wonderland.

But the path to a final monument was filled with controversy. The original design only included Stanton and Anthony, and the ensuing outcry added to mounting public objections to what’s been termed as “whitewashing” of American history. So as confederate statues and ornate sculptures for other historically controversial figures are pulled down, last October, the Mellon Foundation announced a $250 million commitment to create contextualize and relocate existing monuments to better reflect America’s diversity and include the contributions of activists whose work has been ignored or sidelined.

As the 170th anniversary of Truth’s historic speech nears, Allen says her children’s book is a labor of love and necessity.

“I’m going to have to sell some shadow, this book, to support some substance,” she says, laughing while borrowing one of her great grandma’s iconic sayings to describe her own journey. After a career in finance, a stint in divinity school and raising two sons, Allen says she had an epiphany, much like the one that made Isabella Baumfree change her name.

“I woke up in the middle of the night, and I clearly heard God’s voice telling me to write a book,” Allen says. Something about Truth’s story always resonated with her.

“She always knew, even as a little girl, that she had a bigger purpose than just being a slave,” Allen says. “When her slave master promised to free her, and then broke that promise, can you imagine having the strength to walk away?”

What’s more, Allen says, after Truth had mustered the nerve to leave, she turned around and went back to the plantation to retrieve her youngest daughter, Sophia. “If she hadn’t gone back, I probably wouldn’t be here,” she says. “I owe my life to that kind of courage.”

Allen has finally embraced the opportunity to continue the message her ancestor fought to transmit, loudly and clearly.

“We can use our voices to make change,” Allen says. “That’s why I think she’s being recognized so much right now. Her life shows that you can help change history by that spoken word.”


Sojourner Truth

At a gathering of prominent clergymen and abolitionists at the home of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin , Stowe was informed that Sojourner Truth was downstairs and wanted to meet her.

"You's heerd o' me, I reckon?" the former slave asked Stowe when she came downstairs.

"Yes, I think I have. You go about lecturing, do you not?"

"Yes, honey, that's what I do. The Lord has made me a sign unto this nation, an' I go round a'testifyin' an' showin' on 'em their sins agin my people."

Fascinated by Truth's stories and demeanor, Stowe called down several of the more well-known ministers at the party. When asked if she preached from the Bible, Truth said no, because she couldn't read.

"When I preaches," she said, "I has just one text to preach from, an' I always preaches from this one. My text is, 'When I found Jesus.' "

"Well, you couldn't have found a better one," said one of the ministers.

In fact, Truth preached on more themes than that&mdashabolition and women's rights to name two&mdashand became one of the most celebrated and controversial itinerants of her era.

Out of slavery

Born a slave named Isabella Baumfree in southeastern New York, the future abolitionist had several owners during her childhood&mdashmany of them cruel&mdashbefore ending up the property of John Dumont at age 13. For 17 years, she worked for him and then escaped. She made her way to the home of Issac and Maria Van Wagener&mdashwhose home she said God showed her in a vision. The Quaker couple bought her from Dumont and then freed her.

Timeline

U.S. Declaration of Independence

Robert Raikes begins his Sunday school

Death of Samuel Crowther, First Anglican African Bishop

A couple of years later, she had an experience that solidified her emerging faith. According to her dictated autobiography, one day "God revealed himself to her, with all the suddenness of a flash of lightning, showing her, 'in the twinkling of an eye, that he was all over,' that he pervaded the universe, 'and that there was no place where God was not.'"

"I jes' walked round an' round in a dream," the former slave later told Stowe. "Jesus loved me! I knowed it, I felt it."

During her early years, though, her faith was confused, and at one point she joined a cult whose leader eventually murdered one of the members for another period, she followed the Millerites, who predicted Christ would return in 1843.

Wanting to make a fresh start, Isabella asked God for a new name. Again she had a vision&mdashGod renamed her Sojourner "because I was to travel up an' down the land, showin' the people their sins, an' bein' a sign unto them." She soon asked God for a second name, "'cause everybody else had two names and the Lord gave me Truth, because I was to declare the truth to the people."

With this new mission, she left New York and traveled throughout New England, attending local prayer meetings and others she called on her own. In 1850 she published her autobiography, written with Olive Gilbert. It brought her fame, and with that fame came harassment. When she was once told the building she was to speak in would be burned if she preached, she replied, "Then I will speak to the ashes." Her quick wit and determination were only successful to a point. After being physically assaulted by one particularly vicious mob, she was forced to walk with a cane for the rest of her life.

It was against slavery that the former slave made her most virulent attacks. But she was also a woman, and once she met other female abolitionists, she became an avid supporter of women's rights as well. For many northerners, this was even more controversial than her abolitionist preaching. Some tried to stop her from speaking at a Women's Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, in 1851&mdashthey feared it would weaken the abolitionist movement. But Truth spoke anyway, delivering her most famous speech:

By the end of the Civil War, Truth had met with Abraham Lincoln, had her arm dislocated by a racist streetcar conductor, petitioned the government to make western lands available to freed blacks, and made countless speeches on behalf of African Americans and women. In 1875, she retired to her home in Battle Creek, Michigan, where she remained until her death.


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In 1941, during World War II, the DHC and USHA announced the Sojourner Truth project located in northeast Detroit at the heart of Seven Mile-Fenelon neighborhood. The location was purposely chosen because of its proximity to existing concentrations of black communities in an attempt to circumvent controversy. The 200 proposed units acted to alleviate wartime housing shortages.

Backlash Edit

White residents, outraged by public housing projects for impoverished and oppressed Blacks, adamantly opposed the Sojourner Truth project. The Seven Mile-Fenelon Improvement Association, formed by white residents between June 1941 and February 1942, viciously opposed the project's fruition. Black middle class residents of Conant Gardens perpetuated the visceral housing oppression of impoverished Blacks by briefly aligning their values and efforts with the improvement association' opposition to the project. [3] Residents showcased their antipathy through regular meetings, protests, picket lines at city officers, thousands of angry letters, meetings with city officials, attendance of Common Council meetings, and lobbying congressmen in opposition to the public housing.

Support Edit

The Sojourner Truth project, however, found dedicated support from civil rights groups, left-leaning unionists, and pro-public housing groups. The supporters pressured government officials to provide the necessary black housing proposed by the project. [1]

Influence Edit

The continual pressure from opposing sides influenced the Federal Government to switch positions on the racial profile of those occupying the project three times. Original proposals of black occupancy resulted in the Federal Housing Administration's (FHA) refusal to insure mortgage loans for the Seven Mile-Fenelon because of its proximity to the public housing. The racist FHA policy instilled in white residents fears that black residence would directly result in their inability to finance new construction on vacant lots or personal improvement projects. [4] [5] Bending to white pressure, in January 1941, the DHC designated the Sojourner Truth as a project of white occupancy. After a subsequent eruption of two week long protests, city officials promised the project to black war workers. However, this resulted in opposing picketing and protesting by white residents of Seven Mile-Felon who demanded "Rights to Protect, Restrict and Improve [their] Neighborhood." However, black families moved into the newly constructed housing on February 28, 1942. [6]

On February 28, 1942, as the first black families moved into their houses, black supporters and white opponents flooded the streets by the thousands. Passionate protest turned to visceral violence as 40 people were injured, 220 arrested, and 109 held for trial—all but three were black. White segregists utilized this violent eruption as an established precedent to detrimentally affect Detroit's public housing for decades. Influenced by the riot, DHC established a viciously oppressive mandate for racial segregation in all public housing projects. Utilizing the language of the National Associate of Real Estate Boards, city officials vowed that their projects would "not change the racial pattern of a neighborhood". [7] White community groups maliciously utilized threats of a repetition of Sojourner Truth Riots as ammunition to shoot down political support of public housing. City officials strongly wanted to avoid bloodshed and therefore surrendered to their elitist demands. [1]

The controversy of the Sojourner Truth project continued into 1944 with the proposal of a three-hundred-unit housing expansion. However, the DHC rejected the proposal out of belief that it "would be inviting a major controversy while gaining only a very small percentage of the houses needed to solve the immediate housing problem". [8] However, 250 black families successfully moved into the Sojourner Truth housing contrasting the starkly incremental trickle of black occupancy in other parts of the neighborhood. Although representative of racial movements, the transitions of families into the area continued to support the racial divide defined by the Eight-Mile wall that perpetuated systematic and racist housing oppression. Blacks moved into the area between Conant Gardens and the Sojourner Truth or eastern blocks—showcasing this vicious divide. [9]


Black History Month: The Crusade of Sojourner Truth

February is Black History Month—an occasion to single out and honor black citizens who have made lasting and positive contributions to American society. Such a person was Sojourner Truth (1797-1883), a heroic black woman who worked against slavery in states from Maine to Kansas. She spent her last years in Battle Creek, Michigan, and her life is a study in how black and white Americans worked together for a more free and just society.

Born a slave in Ulster County, New York, Sojourner Truth actually grew up with a different name: Isabella. In her youth, she had several masters, one of whom beat her and scarred her for life. She grew tall, almost six feet in height, and strong she was allowed to marry and had four children. In 1826, when her master John Dumont reneged on a promise to free her, Isabella ran away and began work for the Van Wagenens, a nearby Quaker family. When the angry Dumont found her, the Van Wagenens paid him $20 and secured her freedom.

The friendliness of the Van Wagenens helped Isabella learn that white people, like blacks, could be either friends or foes. More lessons of this kind would come quickly. In 1827, New York abolished slavery, but John Dumont sold Isabella’s son Peter to a family in Alabama. When Isabella protested this sale, two white lawyers in New York gave her free legal help and liberated Peter through the courts.

Isabella became fascinated by the notion that black and white could work together to fulfill the goals of the Declaration of Independence—the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all Americans. In her middle age, Isabella changed her name to Sojourner Truth and worked with whites and blacks all over the country to abolish slavery. She moved to Battle Creek, Michigan, in 1857 and soon became active there helping blacks escape to freedom on the Underground Railroad. She never learned to read or write, but a white friend helped her tell her life story in Narrative of Sojourner Truth, which sold widely to readers throughout the North.

In her speeches, Sojourner Truth captivated audiences by revealing how cruel slavery could be. A convert to Christianity, she

taught a message of freedom for blacks mingled with forgiveness—not hatred or violence—toward whites. Frederick Douglass, the famous ex-slave, praised her as "honest, industrious, and amiable" as well as "remarkable" for her "independence and courageous self-assertion." Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, called Sojourner a "shrewd" woman with more "personal presence" than anyone she had ever known. During the Civil War, Sojourner even had a cordial meeting with President Abraham Lincoln: She called him a "Daniel in the lions’ den" fighting to secure liberty and justice for all citizens.

When the Civil War ended, and slavery with it, Sojourner Truth moved to Washington, D.C. for three years to join the Freedmen’s Bureau, which was created to help blacks adjust to and protect their new freedoms. She protested segregation—especially old laws that kept blacks from riding streetcars. She was influential in changing those laws to integrate the streetcars in the nation’s capital before moving back to Battle Creek.

Sojourner insisted that blacks use their freedom in responsible ways. She stressed the need for blacks to be industrious and prove their value to society. In a speech at a temporary relief camp, she criticized those blacks who were living "off the government." "Get off the government and take care of [your]selves" she urged them. She was especially critical of those blacks who one week would take charity boxes of clothes, sent by Northern whites to Washington, and then the next week would return to "grab" more. Such behavior, she insisted, made blacks "worse off . . . than in slavery."

Sojourner Truth helped pave the way for Booker T. Washington, who practiced what she preached and started Tuskegee Institute in Alabama to help blacks develop their skills for America’s industrial society. The opportunities that freedom brings, not special privileges or government handouts, were what she wanted for blacks after the Civil War.

The life of Sojourner Truth—from slave, to author, to acclaimed public speaker, to defender of liberty with responsibility—was truly a sojourn to find the truth. And in the process she joined with whites and other blacks to make America a freer country for all citizens.

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She was an eloquent public speaker and women’s rights advocate

Of all the memorable speeches Sojourner Truth gave in the 19 th century, perhaps the most famous of them all was the one that came to be called the “Ain’t I a Woman” speech. She delivered that speech at the 1851 Women’s rights Convention in Akron, Ohio. There have been varied accounts as to how welcoming the audience at that event was.

According to an 1863 report by Frances Dana Barker Gage, the crowd was very hostile to Sojourner, hissing at her throughout the speech. Other eyewitnesses who were present at the convention beg to differ, stating that the crowd warmly received Truth and other leaders of the convention.

In any case, Sojourner’s speech on that day was full of her unwavering support of equal human rights for all gender and races. She was composed throughout the speech, as she communicated how crucial it was for discrimination to end in order to fulfill the goals of the Declaration of Independence – i.e. the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all Americans.

According to the 1868 account by Frances Gage, Truth repeatedly asked the question “Ain’t I a Woman?” to the audience. Her speech that day was so powerful that it would come to be etched in annals of American history.

Other famous speeches of Sojourner Truth include the ones at: Northampton Association of Education and Industry in Florence, Massachusetts in 1844 the National Women’s Rights convention in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1850 and American Equal Rights Association in May, 1867.

Her first anti-slavery speech took occurred in 1844, when she was a member of the Northampton Association of Education and Industry in Florence, Massachusetts. It was in this group that she got introduced to abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison. She joined forces with those abolitionists to promote women’s rights, religious tolerance and pacifism.


Watch the video: Sojourner Truths Aint I a Woman: Nkechi at TEDxFiDiWomen