In troubled times, history can often be a reminder that today’s issues and struggles are nothing new. Sojourner Truth was critical in making it known that women’s suffrage was not only a case of gender, but race and social status too. Here is her bio, including discussion of the Sojourner Truth Ain’t I a Woman speech.
Who was Sojourner Truth Ain’t I a Woman?
She was born into slavery in 1797. And sold three times before age 13. Sojourner Truth faced many hardships before becoming a renowned abolitionist and women’s rights activist. Though she contributed massively to the timeline of suffrage in America, Truth’s journey extends beyond this, earning her the right to be memorialized in history.
In Dutch speaking Ulster County, New York, Truth’s birth name was Isabella Baumfree. Truth was paired up with a slave in 1815 by her master John Dumont. Both of them were slaves of Dumont. He did that knowing the ownership of any slave children that came from the marriage would not be disputed.
Truth’s master promised her freedom on 4th July 1826, if she worked hard, but Dumont went back on his word. Truth carried her infant daughter to a local abolitionist family, the Van Wagenens. But, she was forced to leave her other four children behind. When Dumont found Truth, her freedom was bought for $20.
After New York’s Anti-Slavery law went into effect, Dumont illegally sold Truth’s youngest son, Peter. As a result, and with help from the Van Wagenens, Truth became the first black woman to successfully sue a white man. She regained custody of her son and they moved to New York City, where Truth worked as a housekeeper.
Thanks to the Van Wagenens, and the preacher in New York she worked for, Truth became a devout Christian. Inspired by her Methodist religion, in 1843 she chose the name Sojourner Truth for herself, vowing to travel and spread the truth of God.
Sojourner Truth’s Ain’t I a Woman speech
The Northampton Association of Education and Industry in Massachusetts welcomed Truth as a member in 1844. The pacifist organization supported women’s rights and religious tolerance. Though the group disbanded in 1846, through them Truth met abolitionists Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison.
Though Truth never learned to read or write, she toured giving lectures on the causes she believed in. At a women’s rights conference in Akron, Ohio in 1851, Truth gave her most famous speech.
Her lecture became known as the Ain’t I a Woman speech. It challenged the concepts of gender inferiority and race inferiority. Though many activists fought for those causes, Truth argued they were one and the same cause.
Her friend Douglass campaigned for black people to vote. But he believed men should have that right before black women. Truth disagreed with that; instead, women should also have that right. Her women’s rights lectures led to meetings and support from other major activists, including Susan B. Anthony.
When the Civil War began, Truth helped recruit African American soldiers, and worked in Washington D.C. organizing supplies for black soldiers. These activities earned her an invitation to the White House to meet President Abraham Lincoln in 1864.
More speeches from Sojourner Truth
Truth would frequently refer to the Bible in her speeches and often referred to her life as a slave. In her 1867 lecture to the American Equal Rights Association, she told the crowd she was a homeowner and paid taxes, just like many men.
She reminded them that her 6-foot stature had deemed her able to do hard manual labour, along with other female slaves. In other words, surely voting was easier to do than to build a road. her speech referred to new rights given to black men but urged people to not forget the rights of women too.
“I feel that I have the right to have just as much as a man. There is a great stir about colored men getting their rights, but not a word about the colored women; and if colored men get their rights, and colored women not theirs, the colored men will be masters over the women, and it will be just as bad as it was before.”
Sojourner Truth continued to challenge those who believed in gender and race inferiority. She campaigned and collected signatures petitioning the government to provide former slaves with land. She collected thousands of signatures, but the federal government took no action.
Legacy of Sojourner Truth
Truth died at her home in Battle Creek, Michigan on November 26, 1883. That was five years after congress rejected the original Woman’s Suffrage Amendment.
She was buried in the local cemetery with “Is God Dead?” engraved on her tombstone. That question was one she once asked Frederick Douglass. Why? To remind him to have faith.
Her legacy went on to inspire the suffrage movement, spurring activists to continue to campaign for the right of everyone to vote until the 19th Amendment was eventually ratified in 1920.
Top photo via Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons