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Women in history: A closer look at Sojourner Truth

DENISHA McKNIGHT | 3/6/2017, 10:46 a.m.
Sojourner Truth – an anti-slavery proponent, women’s rights activist and temperance advocate – is a hero and one of the ...
Sojourner Truth File photo

The Dallas Examiner

Sojourner Truth – an anti-slavery proponent, women’s rights activist and temperance advocate – is a hero and one of the Black foremothers of Black America. This Women’s History Month, we recognize the amazing contributions from this revolutionary triple threat who fought for the rights of Black men and women.

She was born into slavery as Isabella Baumfree in 1797 in Ulster County, New York. She was the youngest of 12 children and grew up speaking English and Dutch.

Between 1806 and 1810, she was sold four times at human auctions for $100, $105, and $175. In 1826, she liberated herself when she walked away from her last slave master’s home with her infant daughter, Sophia. Five miles from her farm, she sought refuge with an abolitionist family who bought her freedom for $20.

After her freedom, Baumfree became very active with the Second Great Awakening, a Protestant evangelist group focused on following the Holy Spirit and simple living. During that time, she received what she perceived to be a vision from God accompanied by the presence of Jesus – who she understood to be her protector and therefore had no reason to fear Him.

With her newfound strength, her first fearless fight for justice was in 1828 after Baumfree discovered that her son, Peter, was sold to a slave owner in Alabama. At the time, it was illegal to sell Northern slaves to the South. Although she had little money, the historical activist still presented her case to the New York Grand Jury and won her son back, making her the first African American and only woman at that time to challenge the court.

Shortly after, she joined a Methodist Perfectionist group – a congregation that meets outside the church for ecstasy-filled worshiping. She formed a relationship with a member of the group, who beat her often. A year later she received “the calling” and left the abusive relationship and group to spread the gospel and fight against racial injustice.

The newfound fighting spirit blossomed a new start for Baumfree. In 1843, she decided to travel the land as an itinerant preacher under a name delivered to her by God: Sojourner Truth.

For the next several years, Truth traveled throughout the East and the Midwest, delivering her message about faith, race, class and gender. She befriended many notable abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison and Harriet Beecher-Stowe.

The legendary crusader wasn’t afraid to challenge those who challenged her and showed no fear in the face of those who opposed her. Her public disagreement with Frederick Douglass proved just that after the famous social reformer called her “uncultured,” spawning Truth’s notable response, “Is God gone?”

Aside from her religious teachings, Truth was a huge player in the women’s suffrage movement and often spoke out for the rights of women, a role emphasized in her 1851 renowned speech Ain’t I a Woman at the Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio.

Although Truth was a famed speaker throughout the state, her teachings didn’t support her lifestyle. She supported herself by selling portraits, captioned “I sell the Shadow to support the Substance,” and received income after the release of her book, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth, a Northern Slave, in 1850, which was written by her friend Olive Gilbert.

During the Civil War era, Truth put her energy into providing food and clothing to Black Union soldiers who were staying in refugee camps. Soon after, she traveled to Washington to help destitute freed slaves and organize a petition for them to obtain land for them to become self-reliant. Although the petition never materialized, freed slaves eventually made their way to Kansas, where Truth helped them settle.

In 1883, she passed away and is currently buried in Battle Creek, Michigan. There is much speculation regarding what age she died, with many people believing she was 105 years old. On her tombstone is engraved her famed quote, “Is God gone?”

Source: SojournerTruth.org, blackpast.org, PBS.org and sojournertruthmemorial.org.