By Gladys McElmore
Isabella Baumfree, an African American abolitionist and women’s rights activist, was born into slavery in Swartekill, New York, but escaped in 1826. Sojourner Truth was her self-given name from 1843 to her death in 1883. At age 17 she was matched, not married, with Thomas [another slave] and they had five children. Being brave and full of faith in God, she went to court in 1828 and retrieved her son Peter who had been sold and together they moved to New York City. She was the fifth Black woman to win such a case against a white man. Can problems create inner strength for future conflicts? She pressed her way to become an unforgettable speaker at the Akron, Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in 1851. Her speech entitled “Ain’t I A Woman?” made her well known. During the Civil War (1861-1865), she helped recruit Black troops for the Union Army. After the war ended, she tried to help newly freed slaves adjust to a new life. She petitioned unsuccessfully for Land grants.
By 1843, Sojourner began traveling as a preacher and at this time she began using her new name. Battle Creek, Michigan became her home as she traveled throughout the Midwest speaking on behalf of the abolitionists and women’s rights activists. During the Civil War she personally met President Abe Lincoln. Many Quakers and other people supported her efforts as a women’s rights activist. She traveled through many states with a petition asking the U.S. government to give land in the west to former slaves (1868).
Flashback to 1826 when she escaped slavery and left most of her family behind. With the help of Quakers who offered her a home and a job as a freed woman in New York. This was her first time sleeping in a bed! Sojourner’s story is lengthy with heart-breaking details of her life which can be informative leisure-time reading. As we read her story, we will appreciate our present day benefits. Can we imagine the feeling of being sold at the age nine with a flock of sheep for $100.00? Do our self-esteem problems compare in any manner? To the world she seemed almost worthless, but God exalted her in His own time!
After dictating her memoirs to a friend in 1850, William Lloyd Garrison privately published her book, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave. How do we react when money is available? She purchased a home for $300.00. Later she spoke with more confidence at the National Women’s Rights Convention in Worcester, Massachusetts. During her lifetime she spoke before dozens or perhaps hundreds of audiences. In 1853 she met Harriet Beecher Stowe who was also an abolitionist and women’s rights crusader. Being unable to vote bothered Sojourner and many other women. She had many supportive influential Black and White friends.
Sojourner’s titles included domestic servant, abolitionist, orator and crusader for women’s rights. Her cultural and historical references (1862-2009) include many honors with statues, paintings, writing and a $.22 commemorative stamp in 1986. The Evangelical Lutheran Church commemorates her as a renewer of society with Harriet Ross Tubman. She is listed with 100 Greatest African Americans. The calendar of Saints of the Episcopal Church bears her name. A library at New York State University is named for Truth. In 2004, a house at King’s College in NYC is named “The House of Sojourner Truth.” The U.S. Capitol building has a bust of Truth sculpted by Artis Lane (2009).
With a big change in her life in 1843, she became a devout Christian who traveled and preached about abolition and slavery. On November 26, 1883 she died (86) at her home in Battle Creek, Michigan and was buried beside family members. How was she helped by a strong religious faith in God? How can we use her self-help ideas to improve our situations? Let us remember her with utmost respect and we can credit her determination to secure women’s rights in American culture and history.
University of VA online
University of NC Press
The African American Encyclopedia
Mrs. Gladys McElmore, a resident of Norfolk’s Middle Town Arch Community, is a New Journal and Guide Freelance Contributor on religion. She is a native of Essex County, Va.