A Brief History
On November 26, 1883, at the age of 86, Sojourner Truth, perhaps the greatest African-American woman advocate of Civil Rights died of natural causes, ending one of if not the greatest life of fighting for African-American rights.
Born a slave in 1797 New York as Isabella Baumfree, Truth grew up speaking only Dutch, and was sold with a flock of sheep for $100 in 1806. Her new master was cruel and harsh, never hesitating to beat young “Belle” with sticks. Luckily, Belle was again sold in 1808 ($105, inflation it seems), her new owner selling her only a year and a half later. This 4th owner was kinder than the others, though his wife made Belle’s life difficult.
In 1815 Belle fell in love with another slave on a neighbor’s property, but that man refused relations between the 2 for the reason if a female slave he did not own had children, he would not get to own that offspring! When the lovebirds secretly met, the neighbor found out and beat his slave so severely Belle’s owner himself had to intervene. The would be couple never saw each other again, a tragedy that was part of slavery. It turned out the slave later died of this beating. Belle did later marry and have several children, one fathered by her owner.
The State of New York was moving toward abolition of slavery and Belle’s owner promised to release her a year before abolition went into effect, but he reneged on that promise, infuriating the woman. Belle walked off her owners land to a nearby farm with only her youngest child, and this man bought the final year of Belle’s servitude from her owner for $20. In 1827 Belle became a legally free woman.
In a land mark court case in 1827 Belle found out that her 5 year old son had been sold to a plantation owner in Alabama, an illegal transaction , causing Belle to sue for custody of her son, winning the case. This lawsuit was the first and highly unusual case of a Black woman suing a White man and winning the case.
Belle became a Christian and worked variously as a housekeeper, once finding herself accused of murdering the head of the household, but was acquitted. In 1843 Belle had another religious epiphany and became a Methodist, and changed her name to Sojourner Truth. She then began her long mission of fighting for the abolition of slavery and for Human and Civil Rights for African-Americans. In 1850 her book (memoirs), The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave was published, and her 1851 famous speech, Aint I a Woman?, brought her further fame. The landmark speech was delivered at the Akron, Ohio Women’s Rights Convention. Truth made it clear that Human and Civil Rights were being demanded for women of all races, as well as for African-American people. (Written accounts of her speech vary, especially as to imposing on her a Southern dialect, which of course was not at all how she spoke.) Truth was now a popular speaker at suffragist and abolitionist meetings, as well as women’s rights events. Several of her speeches along the way became famous.
Truth moved to Michigan and partnered with Seventh-day Adventists to continue her anti-slavery struggle, and during the Civil War she worked to recruit Black men to fight for the Union Army. In 1864 Truth worked in the nation’s capital for the Freedman’s Relief Association, and met President Abraham Lincoln in 1865. With abolition the law of the land, Truth continued to fight for land rights for Blacks, voting rights, women’s suffrage, prison reform, and even lectured against capital punishment. Many influential White people of the day were among her supporters, notably including Susan B. Anthony.
After her death in 1883, Truth was buried in Battle Creek, Michigan, prominent citizens acting as pallbearers. This great American woman is gone, but certainly not forgotten. The Episcopal and Lutheran Churches remember her in their respective Calendar of Saints. Along with other prominent women that strove for Civil Rights. Her legacy extends far and wide numerous schools named in her honor, as well as Sojourner-Douglas College in Baltimore. The image of Truth will appear on the new $10 bill (along with other women of the Civil Rights movement) sometime prior to 2020. Below are listed some of her many honors (taken from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sojourner_Truth):
Cultural references and commemorations
Other honors and commemorations include (by year):
- 1862 – William Wetmore Story‘s statue, “The Libyan Sibyl”, inspired by Sojourner Truth, won an award at the London World Exhibition.
- 1892 – Albion artist Frank Courter is commissioned to paint the meeting between Truth and President Abraham Lincoln.
- 1969 – The leftist group the Sojourner Truth Organization is named after her. The group folded in 1985.
- 1971 – Sojourner Truth Library at New Paltz State University of New York is named in Truth’s honor.
- 1976 – Interstate 194 is named for her in Michigan.
- 1979 – The artwork The Dinner Party features a place setting for Truth.
- 1980 – The Inter Cooperative Council at the University of Michigan and the residents of the then Lenny Bruce House rename it as Sojourner Truth House in her honor.
- 1981 – Truth is inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York.
- 1981 – Feminist theorist and author bell hooks titles her first major work after Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech.
- 1983 – Truth is in the first group of women inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame in Lansing.
- 1986 – The U.S. Postal Service issues a commemorative postage stamp honoring Sojourner Truth.
- 1987 – Truth is commemorated in a monument of “Michigan Legal Milestones” erected by the State Bar of Michigan.
- 1997 – The NASA Mars Pathfinder mission’s robotic rover is named “Sojourner” after her.
- 1998 – S.T. Writes Home appears on the web offering “Letters to Mom from Sojourner Truth,” in which the Mars Pathfinder Rover at times echoes its namesake.
- 1999 – A 12-foot-high monument is built to honor her in Battle Creek, Michigan.
- 1999 – The Broadway musical The Civil War includes an abridged version of Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech as a spoken-word segment. On the 1999 cast recording, the track was performed by Maya Angelou.
- 2002 – Scholar Molefi Kete Asante lists Sojourner Truth on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans.
- 2002 – A statue was installed in Florence Massachusetts to honor Sojourner Truth in a small park located on Pine Street and Park Street, on which she lived for ten years.
- 2004 – The King’s College, located inside the Empire State Building in New York City, names one of their houses “The House of Sojourner Truth“.
- 2009 – Truth becomes the first black woman honored with a bust in the U.S. Capitol. The bust was sculpted by noted artist Artis Lane. It is in Emancipation Hall of the Capitol Visitor Center.
- v2014 – Truth was included in the Smithsonian Institution‘s list of the “100 Most Significant Americans”.
- 2014 – Asteroid (249521) Truth is named in her honor.
- 2015 – A statue of Sojourner Truth is unveiled at the University of California, San Diego. The statue resides in Marshall College.
Question for students (and subscribers): Who is your favorite African-American woman in history? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Carter, Molly. “Sojourner Truth: The Forgotten History of the Slave Who Fought For Women’s Rights.” Ammo.com. Accessed November 18, 2020. https://ammo.com/articles/sojourner-truth-slave-womens-rights-equality-forgotten-history.
McKissack, Fredrick and Patricia C. McKissack. Sojourner Truth: Ain’t I a Woman? (HRW Library). Scholastic Paperbacks, 1994.
Painter, Nell Irvin. Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol. W. W. Norton & Company, 1997.
Truth, Sojourner. The Narrative of Sojourner Truth (Dover Thrift Editions). Dover Publications, Incorporated, 2016.