The Life Of Sojourner Truth

I. Early Life

A. Born a slave in 1797

1. Isabella Van Wagner, in upstate New York

2. She married an older slave and started a family.

B. Sojourner Truth the most famous black female orators

1. She lectured throughout Northeast and Midwest on women’s rights, religion and prison reform.

2. “Ain’t I a Women” speech May 29, 1851

II. Moving to start a new life.

A. The Civil War

1. She nursed soldiers, collected food and clothing for black volunteer regiments

2. The second edition of Truths Narrative

B. Sojourner Truth in her 60’s

1. Displayed the energy and determination that was inherent in her character.

2. Saying words of encouragement to black troops stationed in Detroit.

III. Meeting Lincoln October 29, 1864

A. National Freedman’s Relief Association

1. Appointed her to work as a counselor to freed slaves in Virginia.

2. Filed suits to affirm that black people had legal rights.

B. Sojourners journey in the 1870’s

1. Her visit with President Grant and the U.S. Senate in 1870

2. Advocating hanging as punishment for murder.

Heather Hawthorne

History 377

Dr. Schmider

October 1,2003

The Life of Sojourner Truth

Sojourner Truth wasn’t just a heroine to blacks, slaves, and women. She was also an abolitionist and a champion of women’s rights speaking throughout the country. She acted on her strong feelings about life and the way it should be. But, in my hometown of Battle Creek, Michigan where Sojourner Truth spent her last years, she is known for her powerful speeches that traveled the nation advocating for the fair treatment of freed slaves.

Sojourner Truth was born a slave named Isabella Baumfree in upstate New York. Bell, as she was known, spent her youth as a member of several different households, after she was sold to a new master, and separated from her parents at the age of nine. However, she had already received moral and spiritual education from her mother. These lessons formed the basis of her lifetime devotion to religion and reform. Bell was sold two more times, ending up with a wealthy landowner in New York in 1810. There she married an older slave and started a family.

New York State had passed a law requiring all slaveholders to free slaves who were Forty years old or older in 1817, and to free all others by 1828. Bells owner promised to release her a year early, but he didn’t live up to his word. So, Bell fled with her infant daughter. The Van Wageners, a New York couple who eventually bought her freedom for twenty dollars, took her in. While staying at the Van Wagener’s, she learned that her son had illegally been sold out of state. She sued the slave owner and won, becoming the first black women to win a lawsuit against a white man.

In 1829, Truth and her two children moved to Manhattan, where she became involved in a Christian cult, formed around Robert Matthews, who claimed to be God. Bell worked there as a housekeeper and put her life savings into a commune. But, in 1843 after members of the group was poisoned, she grew disillusioned and left New York City. During this time Bell heard voices that she believed to be God’s. This awakening led her to change her name to Sojourner Truth and she dedicated herself to a life of urging others to accept Jesus.

Sojourner Truth became one of the most famous black female orators of the nineteenth century. Although she never learned to read or write, she was gifted with a certain charisma that made her effective with her words. It was not unusual for large crowds to attend her informal talks on slavery and women’s rights. Since she believed that God wanted her to share her message with as many people as possible, she traveled and lectured for the next forty years. She lived up to her name as the one to bring spiritual enlightenment to as many people as possible. She lectured throughout the Northeast and Midwest, broadening her topics to include not only religion, but also abolition, women’s rights, temperance and prison reform.

Truth’s most famous speech is often know by the title “Ain’t I a Women?” She delivered it on May 29, 1851 at a Women’s Rights convention in Akron, Ohio. After listening to several clergymen who declared that women were inferior to men, and that God had not meant for women to have rights, she spoke directly to the men:

“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 women? I have plowed, and planted and gathered into barns and no man could head me and ain’t I a women? I could work as much and eat as much as a man (when I could get) and bear the lash as well ain’t I a woman? I have born thirteen children and seen most all sold off into slavery and when I cried out with a mothers grief, none but Jesus heard and ain’t I a woman?”

In 1857, Truth moved to Battle Creek, Michigan. When the Civil War broke out, she nursed soldiers and collected food and clothing for black volunteer regiments. Sojourner Truth, not content to remain in one place for any length of time, resumed her travels and spoke in Ohio, Indiana, Iowa, Illinois, and Wisconsin. In Indiana, in the fall of 1858, Truth made another memorable gesture before an audience of both sexes, again related to gender. According to a report published in the abolitionist newspaper, the Boston Liberator, and republished in the second edition of Truth’s Narrative, after a hostile minister claimed that she as a man:

Sojourner told them that her breasts had suckled many a white babe, to the exclusion of her own offspring; that some of those white babies had grown to man’s estate; that, although they had sucked her colored breast, they were, in her estimation, far more manly than they appeared to be; and she quietly asked them, as she disrobed her bosom, if they, too, wish to suck! In vindication of her truthfulness, she told them that she would show her breast to the whole congregation; that it was not to her shame that she uncovered her breast before them, but to their shame.

Her words were even more poignant since war had broken out in 1861. Although in her 60’s, Sojourner displayed the energy and determination that was inherent in her character when she visited and said words of encouragement to the black troops stationed at Detroit.

Sojourner Truth involvement in the war grew when she met Lincoln on October 29, 1864. Two months later, the National Freedman’s Relief Association appointed her to work as a counselor to freed slaves in Virginia. About five months later, she returned to Washington and filed suit to affirm that black people had the same legal rights as white people, and should be able to ride on public transport. Her case was won, but only after a conductor who refused to let her board a streetcar dislocated, her arm.

Even after her government work was completed by 1867, Sojourner continued to work. She was working with feminists, maintaining a correspondence with Susan B. Anthony and attending suffragist rallies as far from her Michigan base as New York. Much of her time spent was with the resettlement of freedmen in 1867. Through the 1870’s Sojourner journeyed across the nation lobbying for the establishment of a Freedmen’s State. Her travels included a visit with President Grant and a trip to the U.S. Senate in 1870, where she pleaded for her cause.

By the early 1880’s, Truth confined her reform efforts to her regional locale in Michigan, due to her advanced in age. One of her last public appearances as an orator took place at the Michigan State Capitol on June 8, 1881. Ever vigilant of injustice, Sojourner was greatly upset by the state legislature’s consideration of Wyckoff capital punishment bill, advocating hanging as punishment for murder. Sojourner’s remarks at Lansing, Michigan published in her hometown newspaper, gives further evidence of her commitment to social issues. Her moving words against capital punishment shows her talent for adapting her message to her audience and building strong appeals by using both logic and pathos:

“I have come her tonight to see about a thing that fairly shocked me. It shocked me worse than slavery. I’ve heard you are going to have hanging again in this state? I had thought for so many years that I lived in the most blessed state in the union, and then to think of its being made the awful scene of hanging people by the neck until they are dead. Where is the man or woman who would sanction such a thing? We are the makers of murderers if we do it. Were do we get this stupid spirit from? Years ago I found out that the religion of Jesus was forgiveness, when I prayed ?father, forgive me as I forgive those who trespass against me’?.I won’t sanction any law in my heart that upholds murder. I am against it?the advocated of such a barbarous thing have murder in their hearts.”(Patten)

Sojourner’s passionate comments to the Michigan State Legislature also comprise the only existing recorded example of her temperance oratory. Shortly after her presentation, the Wyckoff Bill was defeated to the reformer’s joy. Two years after this last documented appearance, Sojourner Truth eventful life closed November 26, 1883 in Battle Creek, Michigan, where she spent her last years. The Detroit Post and Tribune said, “The death of Sojourner Truth takes away the most singular and impressive figure of pure African blood that has appeared in modern times. If one were called upon to name the most spectacular and picturesque person whom we have produced, one would probably think first of Sojourner Truth.” (Catherine)

The effect of Sojourner Truth’s indefatigable efforts as a social reformer is not simply well known; it is a legend. An eminently persuasive speaker, her devotion to the abolitionist and feminist causes were arguably instrumental in bringing both issues to the minds of a broader national audience. As an American orator, Sojourner Truth is most noteworthy, in that she proved that while rhetorical competence may be achieved through careful study, and that true eloquence is obtained only through conviction. At an address at the famous Mob Convention in New York City in September, 1853, Sojourner Truth closed a lecture on women’s rights by warning those present that she would be “watching things? and every once in a while I will come out and tell you what time it is.” For more than four decades, Sojourner Truth made good of her promise.

Works Cited:

Patten, Neil A, The Nineteenth Century Black Women as Social Reformer: The New Speeches of Sojourner Truth, Negro History Bulletin, 49:1 (1986, Jan/Mar) Association for the study of African-American Life and History

“Sojourner Truth.” Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed. 17 Vols., Gale Research, 1998.

Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: The Gale Group. 2003. “Sojourner Truth.” Feminist Writers. St. James Press, 1996.

Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: The Gale Group. 2003. “Sojourner Truth.” Historic World Leaders Gale Research, 1994.

Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: The Gale Group. 2003.

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