from the Smithsonian Institution
- Occupation: Abolitionist and author
- Born: c. 1797 in Swartekill, New York
- Died: November 26, 1883 in Battle Creek, Michigan
- Best known for: Former slave who became an abolitionist and women's rights activist
Where did Sojourner Truth grow up?
Sojourner Truth was born around 1797 on a farm in Swartekill, New York. Her birth name was Isabella Baumfree and she was born a slave. She had at least 10 brothers and sisters, but she didn't get to know all of them. Slave owners would sell children just like property. One day she would be playing with a brother or sister in the yard, the next day they would be gone.
Life as a Slave
When Sojourner turned nine, it was her turn to be sold. She was sold to a farmer named John Neely. Sojourner had grown up in a Dutch settlement and only knew how to speak Dutch. John Neely was an Englishman. He was not happy that Sojourner could not speak English. He beat her often because she could not follow orders.
Sojourner was smart, however, and soon learned English just by listening to others talk. Life as a slave was very hard. She had to work constantly and was sold several times. Her fourth and final owner was John Dumont. He was somewhat nicer to her and she remained with Dumont for many years.
Marriage and Children
When Sojourner became a woman she fell in love with a slave named Robert from a nearby farm. However, Dumont would not let her marry Robert. He ordered her to marry one of his own slaves named Thomas. This way her children would belong to Dumont.
Sojourner had five children, but one died shortly after birth. She constantly worried that one of her children would be taken away from her and sold.
Around 1825, Dumont told Sojourner that he was going to free her in a year because she was such a good worker. She was so happy. However, the reality is that Dumont had little option as all slaves in New York would be legally free by 1827.
When the year was up, Dumont changed his mind. He said that Sojourner had to work for another year. She was so angry she decided to escape. After she had finished up her work, she walked off the farm and went to stay with some nearby neighbors, the Van Wageners, who thought that slavery was evil. When Dumont found out, he confronted the Van Wageners who agreed to purchase Sojourner for $20 and then set her free.
Saving Her Son
Although Sojourner was free, her children were not. Soon she found out that her worst nightmare had come true. Her son Peter had been sold to a slave owner in Alabama. At that time in New York it was illegal to sell a slave across state lines. Sojourner decided to go to court. She won the court case and Peter was returned to New York. People were amazed at her courage. It was very rare at that time for either a slave or a woman to take a white man to court. Sojourner not only went to court, she won! Her example was a triumph of hope for many people.
Sojourner began to work with abolitionists to bring slavery to an end throughout all of the United States. She also believed in women's rights and basic civil rights of all people. Sojourner traveled the country telling people what it was like to be a slave. She was an excellent speaker and when she told her story and explained how slaves were treated, people were moved.
Ain't I a Woman
Perhaps Sojourner's most famous speech was given at the Ohio Women's Rights Convention in 1851. She spoke of slavery, but also of women's rights. Later, the speech was called "Ain't I a Woman", however, most historians agree that it is unlikely that Sojourner used this southern phrase in her speech.
Sojourner was an important leader in the fight to end slavery. Her stories and speeches helped people to understand how immoral slavery was and that it must be stopped. She was in the very first group of women inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.
Interesting Facts about Sojourner Truth
- She changed her name from Isabella Baumfree to Sojourner Truth in 1843.
- During the Civil War she recruited black soldiers to fight for the Union.
- She once met with President Abraham Lincoln and told him the story of her life as a slave.
- The Mars rover built by NASA was named "Sojourner" after her.
- She once said "truth is powerful and it prevails."
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To learn more about Civil Rights:
- Civil Rights Timeline
- African-American Civil Rights Timeline
- Magna Carta
- Bill of Rights
- Emancipation Proclamation
- Glossary and Terms
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