Sojourner Truth: Born A Slave, Destined To Be A Truth Teller


Sojourner Truth Main

Sojourner Truth proclaimed she had a religious duty to travel and proclaim the truth. Isabella (1799-1883) was born a slave in New York. Slavery continued in New York until 1827. By then, Isabella had five children and emancipated herself after her owner reneged on his promise to do so. She always had a strong religious faith and felt a calling to speak the truth. She renamed herself Sojourner Truth, preaching racial and sexual equality. She later helped support the Civil War, meeting Abraham Lincoln. After the war, Sojourner promoted the settlement of freed slaves in the Midwest. 

Slavery In New York 

The United States was a nation that fought for freedom while about one in six people were slaves. Slavery was a national institution. New York and Pennsylvania had sizable slave populations when George Washington became president in 1789.

New York established a gradual emancipation law in 1799 to slowly end slavery.  Slavery ended in 1827. Blacks continued to suffer discrimination, including denial of voting rights. 

A former slave would be a passionate opponent of all these injustices. 

Isabella Born A Slave 

John and Elizabeth Bomfree were slaves in upstate New York. They had about ten to twelve children. Isabella was born a slave in 1799. The family’s owners were Dutch. She had a Dutch accent for the rest of her life. She never learned how to read or write.  

Isabella began doing domestic chores when she was five years old. Elizabeth instilled within her a passionate Christian faith. Isabella began to have religious visions when she was a young child.  

Her first owner died. John Neeley, who bought her for $100, was a cruel master. Isabella ultimately was sold to John Dumont. 

She fell in love with Robert but was not allowed to marry him because they had different owners. She married another slave owned by Dumont, Thomas, and had five children with him. Their names were James, Diana, Peter, Elizabeth and Sophia. 

Freedom 

John Dumont promised Isabella that he would free her a year early “if she would do well and be faithful.” When he changed his mind, Isabella took her youngest daughter and self-emancipated. 

She found sanctity with the Van Wageners family, who were abolitionists. They also helped her regain custody of her young son. Dumont had illegally sold Peter into slavery in Alabama. 

Isabella took the name of her helpers. She was now Isabella Van Wagener. 

Becomes Sojourner Truth 

The early 19th Century was a time of religious revival. Upstate New York was so filled with religious fervor that it was called the “burnt-over district.” The Van Wageners helped inspire Isabella’s religious faith. She became a devout Christian. 

Isabella moved to New York City. She worked as a housekeeper for Elijah Pierson, an evangelical preacher. She became a preacher herself and sought to win converts. 

Isabella declared that the holy spirit called her to preach the truth. She renamed herself “Sojourner Truth.” Sojourner Truth had a calling to “travel up and down the land” to preach.

She became famous for her preaching. She met famous abolitionists, including Frederick Douglas and William Lloyd Garrison. She narrated the story of her life, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth. She traveled the Midwest, attracting large crowds.

Anti-slavery preaching was a dangerous profession. She was once physically attacked so severely that she walked with a limp for the rest of her life. Nonetheless, Sojourner never stopped preaching. She believed she had God on her side.  

Women’s Rights 

Sojourner Truth began to support women’s rights in the 1850s. She was encouraged by women leaders, including Lucretia Mott, to speak in support of equal rights. 

Her most famous speech was at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in 1851. Sojourner declared that she did the work of a man. No one treated her as a frail creature unable to handle public life and the right to vote. Where did Jesus come from? He was born of a woman!

A later transcript of this speech used folksy dialect (“Ain’t I a woman?”). It also noted that she said she had thirteen children (she had five). The earliest version did not have these flourishes.

After the Civil War, some white suffragists opposed the Fifteenth Amendment, which gave black men the vote. They felt it unfair that women did not receive the vote first. She thought black men and women deserved the vote. Nonetheless, she accepted the Fifteenth Amendment. 

Civil War Activities 

In the 1850s, Sojourner Truth settled in Battle Creek, Michigan. Battle Creek welcomed social and religious nonconformists. It was also the birthplace of Grape Nuts cereal. 

When the Civil War began, she did her part. She urged black men to join the Union cause. Sojourner helped collect supplies for African American volunteers.

She visited Washington D.C. She met President Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln showed her a bible given to him by African Americans. Sojourner promoted the integration of D.C. streetcars.

She also worked with the National Freedman’s Relief Association, an organization dedicated to improving the lives of African Americans. She helped collect supplies and counsel ex-slaves. 

Final Years 

Sojourner Truth continued to promote racial justice and equal rights for women. 

Many newly freed blacks looked to the Midwest as a sanctuary after the Civil War. Sojourner supported the resettlement of freed slaves in the West. She petitioned the federal government to help formerly enslaved people to obtain land. 

She returned to Battle Creek, Michigan in the mid-1870s. She was in her seventies and had a long and fruitful life. Sojourner Truth took a well-deserved retirement. 

She died on November 26, 1883.

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.

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