The long and storied life of abolitionist, civil rights activist, and women’s rights advocate Sojourner Truth (pictured) began some time in 1797 under harsh conditions. Born in to slavery, Truth was formerly named Isabella Baumfree as she grew up in the Hudson Valley region of New York before taking her self-given name in 1843. Truth accomplished much in her 86 years of life, including becoming one of the first Black women to legally challenge and defeat a White person in court over the ownership of her son. On this day in 1883, Truth passed away but not without blazing a mighty trail behind her.
Truth was one of 12 children born to her Ghanaian parents and was owned by a Dutch family. Suffering cruelty and abuse, she would be forced to marry another slave and produce five children – later escaping with an infant daughter in 1826. Although the early seeds of emancipation were taking root during this time, Truth and her baby were not yet considered free.
Isaac and Maria Van Wagener took in Truth and her daughter, and she worked for the family as a domestic servant until emancipation in New York took place. Truth then moved to New York City in 1829, and was by then a devout Christian.
In June of 1843, the name Sojourner Truth came to the budding abolitionist in a moment of spiritual clarity. In the following year, she joined the Northampton Association of Education and Industry and met other like minds, such as Frederick Douglas, William Lloyd Garrison, and David Ruggles. Her link with Garrison proved to be fruitful, as the journalist privately published a dictated memoir of Truth’s life titled “The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave 1850.”
In 1851, while at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention, Truth would deliver her famous off-the-cuff speech, “Ain’t I A Woman,” which cemented her place as a leading voice in the growing women’s rights movement.
Listen to actress Alfre Woodard read “Ain’t I A Woman” here:
She continued on as a speaker and lecturer, eventually settling in Battle Creek, Mich., in 1857. Truth lived in the home with her daughter and two grandsons, and she was instrumental in recruiting Black troops for the Union Army during the American Civil War. In 1864, she was employed by the National Freedman’s Relief Association and fought for equal rights for African Americans in Washington, D.C.
Truth’s long journey came to an end on this day, having lived a full life far beyond her meager and oppressive beginnings. Truth died quietly in her home in Battle Creek and was buried at the Oak Hill Cemetery nearby with other family members.
Sojourner Truth endured pain and suffering like many former slaves before her, yet she remained dignified and devoted to the elevation of her people.
Her legacy as a trailblazing activist despite the various obstacles in her way is not only impressive, it is a vital lesson to all that a determined mind can conquer all.