Sojourner Truth (c. 1797 – November 26, 1883) was an African-American abolitionist and women’s rights activist. Truth was born into slavery in Swartekill, Ulster County, New York, but escaped with her infant daughter to freedom in 1826. After going to court to recover her son in 1828, she became the first black woman to win a case against a white man. She gave herself the name Sojourner Truth in 1843 after she became convinced that God had called her to leave the city and go into the countryside “testifying the hope that was in her”.
Her best-known speech was delivered extemporaneously, in 1851, at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio. The speech became widely known during the Civil War by the title “Ain’t I a Woman?,” a variation of the original speech re-written by someone else using a stereotypical Southern dialect; whereas Sojourner Truth was from New York and grew up speaking Dutch as her first language. During the Civil War, Truth helped recruit black troops for the Union Army; after the war, she tried unsuccessfully to secure land grants from the federal government for former slaves.
Sojourner Truth was born in 1797 as Isabella, a Dutch-speaking slave in rural New York. Separated from her family at age nine, she was sold several times before ending up on the farm of John and Sally Dumont. As was the case for most slaves in the rural North, Isabella lived isolated from other African Americans, and she suffered from physical and sexual abuse at the hands of her masters. Inspired by her conversations with God, which she held alone in the woods, Isabella walked to freedom in 1826. Although tempted to return to Dumont’s farm, she was struck by a vision of Jesus, during which she felt “baptized in the Holy Spirit,” and she gained the strength and confidence to resist her former master. In this experience, Isabella was like countless African Americans who called on the supernatural for the power to survive injustice and oppression.
In 1843 she heard “a voice from Heaven” and began spreading “God’s truth and plan for salvation.” 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.” Sojourner Truth would begin her messages: “Children, I talk to God and God talks to me.
During her early years, 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—God 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.”
Sojourner joined religious movements in the Manhattan and Northampton area before striking out on her own to spread faith in her God and in support of women’s rights and abolition. In a letter to Whitman, Eliza Seaman Leggett explains that Truth will only let children read her the Bible, insisting, “If it was the Word of God he will make it plain to her.” Sojourner Truth saw God everywhere, and believed there should be “scriptures telling of railroads, and telephones and the Atlantic cable. She sees God in a steam engine and electricity.” She also saw God in Walt Whitman’s writing; Leggett wrote to Whitman in order to tell him an anecdote about his Leaves of Grass. Overhearing Leggett read Whitman’s poetry to her children, Truth interjected to ask, “‘Who wrote that?’ I turned, and there in the doorway she stood, her tall figure, with a white turban on her head, her figure and every feature full of expression. Immediately, she added: ‘Never mind the man’s name. It was God who wrote it. He chose the man to give his message.’
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—they feared it would weaken the abolitionist movement. But Truth spoke anyway, delivering her most famous speech:
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 helps me any best place. And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm. I have plowed, I have planted, and I have 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 man—when I could get it—and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne children and seen most of them sold into slavery, and when I cried out with a mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me. And ain’t I a woman?
Truth died on November 26, 1883. In her old age, she had let go of Pentecostal judgement and embraced spiritualism. Her last words were “be a follower of the Lord Jesus.”