Sojourner Truth became famous for her abilities as a powerful and moving speaker for the antislavery and women’s rights movements in the nineteenth century. Although she was born a slave and never learned to read or write, her ability to communicate and her personal magnetism captivated audiences wherever she went. She was almost six feet tall, with a deep voice and a remarkable presence. When she spoke, she would preach the word of God, sing gospel songs, and tell stories about her life as a slave. Her speeches were often very funny, and she was known for her witty one-line remarks and her common sense. Sojourner Truth was born a slave named Isabella in Ulster County, New York in the late 1790s. Her parent’s names were James and Elizabeth and they both belonged to Colonel Johannes Hardenburg, one of the wealthiest Dutch farmers in the area. She was the youngest of 12 children, but she knew only her brother Peter. The rest of the children were sold into slavery. Dutch was her first language, and she never learned to read or write, but her mother taught her to believe in God and to pray. Isabella was sold to three different masters. One of them used to beat her. When she was about 13 years old she was sold to John Dumont. She lived with the Dumonts for 16 years and thought of them almost as her family.
She did farm and household labour and the Dumonts thought she was an excellent worker. While living there, she married Thomas in about 1815, and they had 5 children together. Her children had to stay with Dumont, and her husband died shortly after she left. When she was set free in 1826 she went to live with the Van Wagenen family for about one year and took their last name as her own. They didn’t believe in slavery, and they introduced her to the Methodist Church. She had a vision of Jesus and was reborn. While doing her housework she would preach and sing. In September 1828, she went to New York City, where she lived and worked with the Methodist Latourette family. They were very wealthy, and they held religious meetings in their home where anyone could attend and feel free to speak. Isabella preached with them in camp meetings around the city and gained a reputation as a powerful and moving speaker.
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On June 1, 1843, the Holy Spirit spoke to her and told her to leave New York City and go east. She was told to change her name to Sojourner Truth. She called herself Sojourner to describe her life of wandering from place to place, and Truth because she saw herself as a messenger of God. Truth started speaking at many large camp meetings held by the religious Millerite group all over New York, New England, and the upper Midwest. One of her friends suggested she should stay at a commune in Northampton, Massachusetts called the “Northampton Association for Education and Industry”, started by William Lloyd Garrison, a famous abolitionist.
Truth joined the Northampton community in 1843, and lived and worked there until 1846 when it closed down. She met many important people who believed in and spoke out about women’s rights and the abolition of slavery. The truth soon began to speak about these issues herself. She gave her first anti-slavery speech there in 1844. She built up a large network of supporters and friends at Northampton who became her associates for the rest of her life. Because of their influence, she was able to reach many more people than she would have if she were on her own. Truth attended and lectured at many anti-slavery and women’s rights meetings between 1845 and 1850. She spoke at these meetings as a preacher and spoke of her life as a slave. She avoided politics as much as possible. In 1850, she published a book called The Narrative of Sojourner Truth, an autobiography of her life and her thirty years in slavery. Her friend Olive Gilbert, from Northampton, helped her write the book, and William Lloyd Garrison wrote an introduction for it.
From then on, Truth sold her book and her pictures everywhere she went and she used the profits to support herself throughout her life. During the 1850s, Truth went on lecture tours with antislavery and women’s rights groups throughout the northern states. She presented herself as a strong, intelligent black woman with middle-class values. She told about what it was like to be black and a slave, and a poor woman working for unequal pay. As time went on she talked more and more about the evils of slavery in general. She didn’t want blacks to react violently against whites to gain their freedom, like many black abolitionists at the time. She thought God would judge the white people for their cruelty, and said that they should pray and ask forgiveness. Her audiences were mostly middle-class and white, but because she spoke from the Bible and used her sense of humour in her speeches, it made it easier for them to listen to her strong messages. Truth gave some of her most famous speeches during this time.
In 1851 Truth spoke at the Akron, Ohio women’s rights convention. Frances Dana Gage, the president of the meeting, published her account of the speech that Truth gave that day twelve years later, in 1863. This speech is now known as the “Ain’t I A Woman” speech. Gage presented Truth as a figure of strength, who proved that women could take their rights and make a difference. She said that Truth made such a powerful impression on the audience that she turned the whole meeting around in their favour. Truth became such a popular speaker that she was able to hold meetings of her own in the late 1850s. Truth joined a spiritualist group called “Progressive Friends” who believed in equal rights and non-violence. They formed “Harmonia”, a racially mixed community, near Battle Creek, Michigan. Truth joined the community in 1857. She lived there until 1860 and bought a house in Battle Creek. In April 1863 Harriet Beecher Stowe published an essay about Truth called Sojourner Truth, the Libyan Sibyl in the Atlantic Monthly. After that, Truth became a celebrity. She became a well-known symbol among liberals and began to appear in mainstream newspapers.
Truth started to become interested in politics in April 1861, when the Civil War started. She started talking about the war and stood up for the Union cause in her speeches. From November 1863 to April 1864, Truth stayed in Detroit, Michigan to help black soldiers at Camp Ward, where she collected food and clothing for them. She went to Washington DC with several of her abolitionist friends where she hoped to work with the freedpeople and meet Abraham Lincoln. She campaigned for his re-election on the way there. When she arrived she wasn’t important enough to enter the White House, but with the help of her friend Lucy Colman, she met President Lincoln on October 29, 1864. From the end of 1864 to 1867 Truth worked in refugee relief at various camps for the “National Freedmen’s Relief Association” and the “Freedmen’s Bureau”, which helped the thousands of slaves who fled to Washington for freedom during and after the Civil War. Truth worked to try to place them in jobs up North, but because they didn’t want to leave their families, many refused. When the Thirteenth Amendment passed in 1865, slavery ended. During the Reconstruction debates over black and women’s rights to vote that surrounded the Fourteenth Amendment, she was one of the few black abolitionists to side with the white feminists and say women should be able to vote along with the black men.
Many blacks thought the women’s vote could wait. She fought for the rights of blacks and women in the name of black women. The truth was the only prominent black woman to be associated with the white woman suffrage movement in Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s book The History of Woman Suffrage, published in 1881. In 1870, Truth campaigned to allot western land for resettlement of freedpeople still unemployed in Washington DC. She thought that it was necessary to prevent misery, degradation, and crime in the present and future generations. She thought that the blacks could find work and become respectable and independent citizens. She drew up a petition to send to Congress and she travelled up and down the east coast collecting signatures and speaking of her plans. She became frustrated with the lack of concern and the mission ended in 1874. Congress never acted on her petition. In 1879-1880 the Exodus to Kansas began a spontaneous movement in which thousands of poor blacks left the Southern states. It revived Truth’s campaign. With many other abolitionist women, she travelled to the side of the needy freedpeople to help them and spoke at churches to gain support for them.
She returned to Battle Creek, Michigan in 1880. She travelled within the state and spoke whenever she could, but newspapers everywhere published her speeches. When she was too ill to travel people came to her bedside to hear her speak. She died of ulcerated sores on her legs on November 16, 1883. Her last words were, “Be a follower of the Lord Jesus”.Sojourner Truth’s early life as a slave, her faith in God, and her abilities as a speaker all helped to make her one of the most notable and highly regarded black women in the nineteenth century. Sojourner Trith was an inspiration to me because she believed in herself, and dedicated her entire life to fighting for the causes she believed in. She showed me that even though we sometimes have to overcome incredible odds in our lifetime, if we believe in ourselves and fight for what we believe in, we can make a difference Painter, Nell Irvin. (1996). Sojourner Truth a life, a symbol. New York: W W Norton & Company Smith, Jessie Carney. (1993). Epic lives, one hundred black women who made a difference. Detroit: Visible Ink Press Washington, Margaret. (1993). Narrative of Sojourner Truth. New York: Vintage Classics
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