Profile: Sojourner Truth (1797–1883

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Abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth is best known for her speech on racial inequalities, “Ain’t I a Woman?” delivered at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in 1851.

Who Was Sojourner Truth?

Sojourner Truth was an African American abolitionist and women’s rights activist best-known for her speech on racial inequalities, “Ain’t I a Woman?”, delivered extemporaneously in 1851 at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention.

Truth was born into slavery but escaped with her infant daughter to freedom in 1826. She devoted her life to the abolitionist cause and helped to recruit black troops for the Union Army. Although Truth began her career as an abolitionist, the reform causes she sponsored were broad and varied, including prison reform, property rights and universal suffrage.

Family

Historians estimate that Truth (born Isabella Baumfree) was likely born around 1797 in the town of Swartekill, in Ulster County, New York. However, Truth’s date of birth was not recorded, as was typical of children born into slavery.

Truth was one of as many as 12 children born to James and Elizabeth Baumfree. Her father, James Baumfree, was a slave captured in modern-day Ghana. Her mother, Elizabeth Baumfree, also known as Mau-Mau Bet, was the daughter of slaves from Guinea.

Early Life as a Slave

The Baumfree family was owned by Colonel Hardenbergh, and lived at the colonel’s estate in Esopus, New York, 95 miles north of New York City. The area had once been under Dutch control, and both the Baumfrees and the Hardenbaughs spoke Dutch in their daily lives.

After the colonel’s death, ownership of the Baumfrees passed to his son, Charles. The Baumfrees were separated after the death of Charles Hardenbergh in 1806. The 9-year-old Truth, known as “Belle” at the time, was sold at an auction with a flock of sheep for $100. Her new owner was a man named John Neely, whom Truth remembered as harsh and violent.

Over the following two years, Truth would be sold twice more, finally coming to reside on the property of John Dumont at West Park, New York. It was during these years that Truth learned to speak English for the first time.

Sojourner Truth’s Husband and Children

Around 1815, Truth fell in love with a slave named Robert from a neighboring farm. The two had a daughter, Diana. Robert’s owner forbade the relationship, since Diana and any subsequent children produced by the union would be the property of John Dumont rather than himself. Robert and Truth never saw each other again.

In 1817, Dumont compelled Truth to marry an older slave named Thomas. The couple marriage resulted in a son, Peter, and two daughters, Elizabeth and Sophia.

Early Years of Freedom

The state of New York, which had begun to negotiate the abolition of slavery in 1799, emancipated all slaves on July 4, 1827. The shift did not come soon enough for Truth.

After John Dumont reneged on a promise to emancipate Truth in late 1826, she escaped to freedom with her infant daughter, Sophia. Her other daughter and son stayed behind.

Shortly after her escape, Truth learned that her son Peter, then 5 years old, had been illegally sold to a man in Alabama. She took the issue to court and eventually secured Peter’s return from the South. The case was one of the first in which a black woman successfully challenged a white man in a United States court.

Truth’s early years of freedom were marked by several strange hardships. Truth converted to Christianity and moved with her son Peter to New York City in 1829, where she worked as a housekeeper for Christian evangelist Elijah Pierson. She then moved on to the home of Robert Matthews, also known as Prophet Matthias, for whom she also worked as a housekeeper. Matthews had a growing reputation as a con man and a cult leader.

Shortly after Truth changed households, Elijah Pierson died. Robert Matthews was accused of poisoning Pierson in order to benefit from his personal fortune, and the Folgers, a couple who were members of his cult, attempted to implicate Truth in the crime.

In the absence of adequate evidence, Matthews was acquitted. Because he had become a favorite subject of the penny press, he decided to move west. In 1835, Truth brought a slander suit against the Folgers and won.

After Truth’s successful rescue of her son, Peter, from slavery in Alabama, mother and son stayed together until 1839. At that time, Peter took a job on a whaling ship called the Zone of Nantucket.

Truth received three letters from her son between 1840 and 1841. When the ship returned to port in 1842, however, Peter was not on board. Truth never heard from him again.

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