Sojourner Truth

Sojourner Truth

Sojourner Truth (originally named Isabella Baumfree), was born a slave in Ulster County, New York State, in about 1797. At the age of nine she was auctioned off to an Englishman named John Nealey. Over the next few years she was owned by a fisherman in Kingston and then by John Dumont, a plantation owner from New York County. Between 1810 and 1827 she had five children with a fellow slave. She was dismayed when one of her sons was sold to a plantation owner in Alabama.

After New York State abolished slavery in 1827, Quaker friends helped her win back her son through the courts. She moved to New York City and obtained worked as a servant. She became friends with Elijah Pierson, a religious missionary, and eventually moved into his home.

In 1843 Isabella took the name Sojourner Truth. With the help of a white friend, Olive Gilbert, she published her book, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth. In an introduction to the book, William Lloyd Garrison wrote that he believed it would "stimulate renewed efforts to liberate all those still in slavery in America".

Over the next few years Truth toured the country making speeches on slavery. After meeting Lucretia Mott, she also spoke at meetings in favour of woman's suffrage. When a white man told her that her speeches were no more important than a fleabite, she replied, "Maybe not, but the Lord willing, I'll keep you scratching."

At the beginning of the American Civil War, she helped recruit black men to help the war effort. In 1864 she moved to Washington where she organised a campaign against the policy of not allowing blacks to sit with whites on trains. As a result of this, she was received in the White House by PresidentAbraham Lincoln. Sojourner Truth died at Battle Creek, Michigan, on 26th November, 1883.

Primary Sources

(1) Olive Gilbert, Narrative of Sojourner Truth (1843)

The subject of this biography, Sojourner Truth, as she now calls herself, but whose name originally was Isabella, was the daughter of James and Betsey, slaves of one Colonel Ardinburgh, Hurley, Ulster County, New York. Sojourner does not know in what year she was born, but knows she was liberated under the act of 1817, which freed all slaves who were forty years old and upward. Ten thousand slaves were then set at liberty. Those under forty years of age were retained in servitude ten years longer, when all were emancipated.

(2) Olive Gilbert, Narrative of Sojourner Truth (1843)

At length, the never to be forgotten day of the terrible auction arrived, when the "slaves, horse, and the other cattle" of Charles Ardinburgh, deceased, were to be put under the hammer. Isabella was sold for the sum of one hundred dollars, to one John Nealey, of Ulster County, New York. She was now nine years of age, and her trials in life may be dated from this period.

During the winter her feet were badly frozen, for want of proper covering. They gave her plenty to eat, and also plenty of whippings. One Sunday morning, in particular, she was told to go to the barn; on going there, she found her master with a bundle of rods, prepared in the embers, and bound together with cords. When he had tied her hands together before her, she gave her the most cruel whipping she was tortured with. He whipped her till the flesh was deeply lacerated, and the blood streaming from her wounds - and the scars remain to the present day, to testify to the fact.

(3) Frances Gage, president of the Convention Women's Convention in Akron, Ohio (1851)

Several ministers attended the second day of the Woman's Rights Convention, and were not shy in voicing their opinion of man's superiority over women. One claimed "superior intellect", one spoke of the "manhood of Christ," and still another referred to the "sin of our first mother." Suddenly, Sojourner Truth rose from her seat in the corner of the church.

"For God's sake, Mrs. Gage, don't let her speak!" half a dozen women whispered loudly, fearing that their cause would be mixed up with Abolition.

Sojourner walked to the podium and slowly took off her sunbonnet. Her six-foot frame towered over the audience. She began to speak in her deep, resonant voice: "Well, children, where there is so much racket, there must be something out of kilter, I think between the Negroes of the South and the women of the North - all talking about rights - the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what's all this talking about?"

(4) Sojourner Truth, speech at the Women's Convention in Akron, Ohio (1851)

I want women to have their rights. In the courts women have no right, no voice; nobody speaks for them. I wish woman to have her voice there among the pettifoggers. If it is not a fit place for women, it is unfit for men to be there.

I am above eighty years old; it is about time for me to be going. I have been forty years a slave and forty years free, and would be here forty years more to have equal rights for all. I suppose I am kept here because something remains for me to do; I suppose I am yet to help to break the chain. I have done a great deal of work; as much as a man, but did not get so much pay. I used to work in the field and bind grain, keeping up with the cradler; but men doing no more, got twice as much pay. We do as much, we eat as much, we want as much. I suppose I am about the only colored woman that goes about to speak for the rights of the colored women. I want to keep the thing stirring, now that the ice is cracked. What we want is a little money. You men know that you get as much again as women, when you write, or for what you do. When we get our rights, we shall not have to come to you for money, for then we shall have money enough in our own pockets; and maybe you will ask us for money. But help us now until we get it. It is a good consolation to know that when we have got this battle once fought we shall not be coming to you any more.

I am glad to see that men are getting their rights, but I want women to get theirs, and while the water is stirring I will step into the pool. Now that there is a great stir about colored men's getting their rights is the time for women to step in and have theirs. I am sometimes told that "Women ain't fit to vote. What, don't you know that a woman had seven devils in her: and do you suppose a woman is fit to rule the nation?" Seven devils ain't no account; a man had a legion in him. The devils didn't know where to go; and so they asked that they might go into the swine. They thought that was as good a place as they came out from. They didn't ask to go into the sheep - no, into the hog; that was the selfish beast; and man is so selfish that he has got women's rights and his own too, and yet he won't give women their rights. He keeps them all to himself.

(5) Sojourner Truth, speech at the Women's Convention in Akron, Ohio (1851)

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.

(6) Anti-Slavery Bugle, Ohio (21st June, 1851)

One of the most unique and interesting speeches of the Convention was made by Sojourner Truth, an emancipated slave. It is impossible to transfer it to paper, or convey any adequate idea of the effect it produced upon the audience. Those only can appreciate it who saw her powerful form, her whole-souled, earnest gesture, and listened to her strong and truthful tones.

She came forward to the platform and addressing the President (Frances Gage) said with great simplicity: May I say a few words? Receiving an affirmative answer, she proceeded; I want to say a few words about this matter. I am for woman's rights. I have as much muscle as any man, and can do as much work as any man. I have plowed and reaped and husked and chopped and mowed, and can any man do more than that? I have heard much about the sexes being equal; I can carry as much as any man, and can eat as much too, if I can get it. I am as strong as any man that is now.

As for intellect, all I can say is, if woman have a pint and a man a quart - why can't she have her little pint full? You need not be afraid to give us our rights for fear we will take too much - for we won't take more than our pint will hold.

The poor men seem to be all in confusion and don't know what to do. Why children, if you have woman's rights give it to her and you will feel better. You will have your own rights, and there won't be so much trouble.

(7) Sojourner Truth, letter to a friend about her meeting with President Abraham Lincoln (17th November, 1864)

Upon entering his reception room we found about a dozen persons in waiting, among them two coloured women. I had quite a pleasant time waiting until he was disengaged, and enjoyed his conversation with others; he showed as much kindness and consideration to the colored persons as to the white. One case was that of a colored woman who was sick and likely to be turned out of her house on account of her inability to pay her rent. The president listened to her with much attention, and spoke to her with kindness and tenderness.

He then congratulated me on my having been spared. Then I said, I appreciate you, for you are the best president who has ever taken the seat. He replied: "I expect you have reference to my having emancipated the slaves in my proclamation". But, said he, mentioning the names of several of his predecessors, "they were all just as good, and would have done just as I have done if the time had come."