I will continue my tradition of talking about strong, independent Christian women in our history.
Many of these women had a religious experience that changed their path in life. One of these women is Sojourner Truth. If you are like I was, I knew she was important in the movement for women’s rights and women’s suffrage but I knew very little about her life.
She was born to slave parents. Because she was a slave, no birth records were kept. It seems she was born about 1797 and given the name Isabella “Belle” Baumfree. She lived on a farm in upstate New York, about ninety-five miles from New York City. (For your information, New York state began to legislate the abolition of slavery in 1799 but it was not complete until July 4, 1827). The owner of the farm was Dutch and Dutch became her first language. She learned English after she had been sold to a New York farmer and he demanded that she speak his language. She was sold a few more times before she escaped in 1826. She has said that she “ran to freedom” with her infant daughter, Sophia. Thereafter, she worked as a housekeeper, farmhand, and general handyman (woman) on a few farms still in upstate New York. It is here that she had a life-changing religious experience and became a devout Christian. She moved to New York City in 1829 with her son Peter where she worked for a Christian Evangelist.
She had 5 children: James (who died in childhood), Diana (the result of rape by her owner), Peter who disappeared from a whaling ship in 1842, Elizabeth, and Sophia.
After years of working for communal religious leaders, Baumfree began to want to speak for herself. In 1843 she became a Methodist, and on June 1, 1843 (Pentecost Sunday), she changed her name to Sojourner Truth. She chose the name because she heard the Spirit of God call on her to preach the truth. She left New York City to preach in the countryside “testifying to the hope that was in her”. Her preaching was about the abolition of slavery. However, it became clear the abolition of slavery included the abolition of men’s rights only. She joined the Northampton Association of Education and Industry in Massachusetts. Founded by abolitionists, the organization supported women’s rights and religious tolerance as well as pacifism. In 1846, the group disbanded, unable to support itself.
In 1850, Truth privately published her book The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: a Northern Slave. In 1851, she went on a lecture tour through central and western New York State. In May of that year, she attended the Ohio women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio where she gave her famous speech on women’s rights. Her speech demanded equal rights for all women. She spoke as a formerly enslaved woman, combining calls for abolitions with women’s rights and drawing from her strength as a laborer to make her equal rights claims. Truth argued, “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 helps me to any best place. And ain’t I a woman” This extemporaneous speech being widely known by the title “Aint’ I a Woman”.
Over the next 10 years, Truth spoke before dozens, perhaps hundreds of audiences. During the Civil War, she helped recruit black troops for the Union Army. After the war, she tried to secure land grants for formerly enslaved people. She continued to fight on behalf of women and African Americans until her death in 1883.
In 1857, Truth moved to Michigan where she rejoined former friends who had begun the Seventh Day Adventist Church. In 1864, she was employed by the National Freedman’s Relief Association in Washington D. C. where she met Abraham Lincoln.
Truth dedicated her life to fighting for a more equal society for African Americans and for women, including abolition, voting rights, and property rights. She was at the vanguard of efforts to address intersecting social justice issues. Truth suggested that the women’s movement champion the broad interests of all humanity.
There are many memorials to Sojourner Truth:
1935 – 1st Historical Marker in Battle Creek, Michigan
1981 – Ohio Historical Marker in Akron where she gave her famous speech in 1851
1983 –Plaque in Kingston, New York
1999 –Statue in Sacramento, California
1998 –Statue in Seneca Falls, New York
2002 –Statue in Florence, Massachusetts
2009 –Memorial Bust in Emancipation Hall of the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center in Washington D.C.
2013—Statue as an 11-year-old in Port Ewan, New York
2014 —Smithsonian magazine named her to the list of Most Significant Americans of All Time
2015 –Historical marker commemorating her walk to freedom in 1826
2015 –Statue on the campus of University of California, San Diego at Thurgood Marshall College of Law
2020 –Statue in Highland, New York
2020 –on the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, a statue honoring Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony in Central Park, New York City
Most importantly: On July 20, the calendar of saints of the Episcopal Church remembers Sojourner Truth annually.