Welcome to Black History 365, a series where I can explain, educate and explore historical events, unsung black figures in world history, and recount the struggles and triumphs of black people worldwide. In this entry I’ll be presenting the story of Sojourner Truth.
Sojourner Truth was a former slave, an outspoken abolitionist, and a civil rights and women’s rights activist in the nineteenth century. Her work during the civil war earned her an invitation to meet Abraham Lincoln in 1864.
Sojourner Truth was born Isabella Bomfree, a slave in Dutch-speaking Ulster County, New York. Truth was bought and sold four times, and subjected to harsh physical labor and violent punishments. In her teens, she united with another slave with whom she had five children with, beginning in 1815. Furthermore, in 1827, a year before New York’s law freeing slaves was to take effect, Truth escaped with her infant Sophia to a nearby abolitionist family, the Van Wageners. This family would buy her freedom for twenty dollars and helped Truth successfully sue for the return of her five year old son Peter who was taken from her and sold illegally into slavery in Alabama.
The following year, Truth moved to New York City, where she would work for a local minister. Two years later in 1830, she participated in the religious revivals that were spreading throughout the state and the rest of the nation. She would find success in her preaching due to her charisma and credibility.
It seems during the religious revivals aka the second awakening, slaves and in her case, a free slave spoke with or were called upon by the spirit to embark on a journey of freedom and truth. I spoke about this on the episode dealing with Nat Turner. In 1843, she believed that her persistent teaching was the cause for the holy spirit to call on her to preach the truth. From then on she renamed herself Sojourner Truth.
As an itinerant preacher, Truth would meet William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglas. Garrison’s anti-slavery organization encouraged Truth to give speeches about the evils of slavery. However, as with other slaves, she was illiterate. However, in 1850 she dictated what would become her autobiography – The Narrative of Sojourner Truth to which a man named Oliver Gilbert assisted in the publication. Moreover, Truth survived on sales of the book, which garnered her national recognition. In the meantime, she would continue her civil rights activism for freed and enslaved blacks and women’s rights which allowed her to come in contact with fellow women’s right activists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.
In 1851, Truth began a lecture tour that included her women’s rights peers and they would have conferences in Akron Ohio. There she would deliver her famous “Ain’t I a woman”? speech. In the speech, she challenges the prevalent notions of racial and gender inferiority and inequality by reminding listeners of her combined strength and female status. In regards to that, Truth had a falling out with Frederick Douglass, who believed the suffrage for formerly enslaved men should come before women’s suffrage, a perspective she thought should happen simultaneously.
During the 1850s Truth settled in Battle Creek Michigan where three of her daughters lived. She continued to speak nationally and helped slaves escape to freedom. When the Civil War started, Truth urged young men to join the union cause and organized supplies for black troops. Furthermore, after the war, she was honored with an invitation to the White House and became involved with the Freedom Bureau, helping free slaves find jobs and build new lives. While in Washington D.C., she lobbied against segregation. In the mid-1860’s a streetcar conductor tried to violently block her from riding. Truth went on to ensure his arrest and went on to win her case. In the late 1860’s she collected thousands of signatures on a petition to provide former slaves with land, though Congress never took action. Nearly blind and deaf towards the end of her life, Truth spent her final years in Michigan.
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