Isabella Baumfree was born into slavery in 1797 in rural New York state. She was separated from her family as a child, and was sold several times, eventually ending up on the farm of the Dumont family. Suffering cruel treatment at the hands of her many masters, she took solace in religion.
When slavery was abolished in New York state in 1827, Baumfree became a free woman. She moved to New York City, where she continued to develop a strong connection with god and began preaching in the pentecostal tradition. She adopted the name Sojourner Truth, which she believed was given to her by god as a representation of her mission in life. Her reputation as an orator spread, and soon, large crowds of people gathered when she spoke. She took her message on the road and, as a traveling preacher, came into contact with abolitionists and women’s rights crusaders.
Truth joined the Northampton Association of Education and Industry in Massachusetts, a group founded by abolitionists to promote cooperative labor. They were anti-slavery, religiously tolerant and supporters of women’s rights. While there, Truth worked with abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass. Unable to read or write, Truth dictated her memoirs to Association member Olive Gilbert. William Lloyd Garrison published The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave in 1850.
Sojourner Truth gave her famous “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech at the 1851 Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio. Several ministers were in attendance, and voiced their opinion of men’s superiority over women. Truth rose in her seat and began:
Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter. I think that ‘twixt the negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what’s all this here talking about?
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 ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?
Then they talk about this thing in the head; what’s this they call it? [member of audience whispers, "intellect"] That’s it, honey. What’s that got to do with women’s rights or negroes’ rights? If my cup won’t hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn’t you be mean not to let me have my little half measure full?
Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.
If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back , and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.
Obliged to you for hearing me, and now old Sojourner ain’t got nothing more to say.
Sojourner Truth biographer Nell Painter said, “at a time when most Americans thought of slaves as male and women as white, Truth embodied a fact that still bears repeating: Among blacks are women; among the women, there are blacks.”
During the Civil War, Truth helped recruit black troops for the Union army and gathered supplies for black volunteer regiments. President Abraham Lincoln invited her to visit the White House in 1864. In the post-war years, Truth was a freedom rider: she forced the desegregation of the Washington DC streetcar system by suing them for not allowing her to ride. After the War ended, Sojourner Truth remained active in the struggle for expanded civil rights and suffrage until her death in 1883. She is buried in Battle Creek, Michigan.