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Sojourner Truth

Category: Ordinary person

Sojourner Truth (born Isabella (Belle) Baumfree; c. 1797 – November 26, 1883) was an African-American abolitionist and women's rights activist. She was also a passionate and fiery speaker
The impressions made by Isabella, when moved by lofty or deep feeling, can never be transmitted to paper, -  the look, the gesture, the tone of voice, .. the quaint, yet fit expressions used, and the spirit-stirring animation that, at such a time, pervaded all she said."

Truth was born into slavery in Swartekill, Ulster County, New York, but escaped with her infant daughter to freedom in 1827. She gave herself the name Sojourner Truth in 1843 after she became convinced that God had called her to leave the city and go into the countryside "testifying the hope that was in her". 

She is on the site not only because she is a remarkable example of how a person can turn the hell of adversity into the heaven of real achievement, but also because she used prayer a great deal and her prayers were answered – in the sense that by opening her mind she received the guidance she sought –the help she needed at the time.  She also experienced an astounding experience, which was recorded by Olive Gilbert in the book Narrative Of Sojourner Truth from which we have drawn all our observations.

Preface to Narrative Of Sojourner Truth, A Northern Slave, Emancipated From Bodily Servitude By The State Of New York, In 1828. – Olive Gilbert

THE following is the unpretending narrative of the life of a remarkable and meritorious woman–a life which has been checkered by strange vicissitudes, severe hardships, and singular adventures. Born a slave, and held in that brutal condition until the entire abolition of slavery in the State of New York in 1827, she has known what it is to drink to the dregs the bitterest cup of human degradation. That one thus placed on a level with cattle and swine, and for so many years subjected to the most demoralizing influences, should have retained her moral integrity to such an extent, and cherished so successfully the religious sentiment in her soul, shows a mind of no common order, while it heightens the detestation that is felt in every humane bosom, of that system of oppression which seeks to cripple the intellect, impair the understanding, and deprave the hearts of its victims–a system which has subjected to its own foul purposes, in the United States, all that is wealthy, talented, influential, and reputedly pious, in an overwhelming measure!

Early Life

SOJOURNER TRUTH’s name originally, was Isabella.  She was born, as near as she was able to calculate, between the years 1797 and 1800. She was the daughter of James and Betsey, slaves of one Colonel Ardinburgh, Hurley, Ulster County, New York.  It was her mother Betsey who gave her a religious education, instilling moral values and a belief in God.

Of her first master, she could give no account, as she was an infant when he died; and she, with her parents and some ten or twelve other slaves, became the legal property of his son, Charles Ardinburgh. She distinctly remembers hearing her father and mother say, that their lot was a fortunate one, as Master Charles was the best of the family,–being, comparatively speaking, a kind master to his slaves.  That said, all his slaves slept in the cellar of the house on wooden boards and straw.

Sojourner never knew the exact number of her brothers and sisters.  She was the youngest, save one, and all the older children had already been sold, some at only 4 or 5 years old.  She estimated she was one of about 12.  Isabella and Peter, her youngest brother, remained with their parents, the legal property of Charles Ardinburgh until he died, which took place when Isabella was around nine years old. 

Auctioned and sold to the Nealys

The death of Charles Ardinburgh resulted in the sale of Ardinburgh’s property – including his slaves and Isabella was auctioned and sold for the sum of one hundred dollars, to one John Nealy, of Ulster County, New York; she had an impression that in this sale she was connected with a lot of sheep.

She was nine years of age, could only talk Dutch–and the Nealys could only speak English. Mr. Nealy could understand Dutch, but Isabel and her mistress could neither of them understand the language of the other.  Needless to say this ended up “a fruitful source of dissatisfaction to the mistress, and of punishment and suffering to Isabella”.

Narrative Of Sojourner Truth, A Northern Slave, Emancipated From Bodily Servitude By The State Of New York, In 1828. – Olive Gilbert

During the winter her feet were badly frozen, for want of proper covering. They gave her a plenty to eat, and also a plenty of whippings.

One Sunday morning, in particular, she was told to go to the barn; on going there, she found her master with a bundle of rods, prepared in the embers, and bound together with cords. When he had tied her hands together before her, he gave her the most cruel whipping she was ever tortured with.

He whipped her till the flesh was deeply lacerated, and the blood streamed from her wounds–and the scars remain to the present day, to testify to the fact.

In those hours of her extremity, she did not forget the instructions of her mother, to go to God in all her trials, and every affliction; and she not only remembered, but obeyed: going to him, 'and telling him all–and asking Him if He thought it was right,' and begging him to protect and shield her from her persecutors.

Bought by Scriver

Her father, being old and partially blind and thus no longer of any value as a slave, had not been auctioned but freed along with her mother and he came to see Isabella one day and heard of her treatment by the Nealys.  Later, at the suggestion of her father, a fisherman and tavern owner by the name of Scriver appeared at Mr. Nealy's and paid one hundred and five dollars for her.  He also lived in Ulster County, but some five or six miles from Mr. Nealy's and “she soon started off with him, walking while he rode; for he had bought her.”

Scriver’s family turned out to be rude and uneducated, ‘exceedingly profane in their language’, but, on the whole, an honest, kind and well-disposed people.  Isabella led a ‘wild, out-of-door kind of life’ with them carrying fish, hoeing corn, and bringing roots and herbs from the woods for beers.  After living with them for about a year and a half, she was sold to one John J. Dumont, for the sum of seventy pounds. This was in 1810.

Sold to Mr Dumont

Mr. Dumont lived in the same county as her former masters, in the town of New Paltz, and she remained with him till a short time previous to her emancipation by the State, in 1828.

Narrative Of Sojourner Truth, A Northern Slave, Emancipated From Bodily Servitude By The State Of New York, In 1828. – Olive Gilbert

Mr. Dumont had been nursed in the very lap of slavery, and being naturally a man of kind feelings, treated his slaves with all the consideration he did his other animals [sic], and more, perhaps. But Mrs. Dumont, who had been born and educated in a non-slaveholding family ….. could not have patience with … the poor down-trodden outcast…….  From this source arose a long series of trials in the life of our heroine.

Mr Dumont may have been a ‘man of kind feeling’, but when Isabella was asked by her biographer Olive if her master, Dumont, ever whipped her? She answered, 'Oh yes, he sometimes whipped me soundly, though never cruelly [sic]. And the most severe whipping he ever give me was because I was cruel to a cat.'

Marriage and children

Isabella’s first love, Robert, was forbidden to see her by his owners, and beaten brutally when he disobeyed, until eventually he gave up.  Subsequently, Isabella was married to a fellow-slave, named Thomas, who had previously had two wives, one of whom, if not both, had been torn from him and sold far away.

In process of time, Isabella found herself the mother of five children, and “she rejoiced in being permitted to be the instrument of increasing the property of her oppressors!”  Dumont continued to at least show some humanity in his treatment of her.

Narrative Of Sojourner Truth, A Northern Slave, Emancipated From Bodily Servitude By The State Of New York, In 1828. – Olive Gilbert

If her master came into the house and found her infant crying, (as she could not always attend to its wants and the commands of her mistress at the same time,) he would turn to his wife with a look of reproof, and ask her why she did not see the child taken care of; saying, most earnestly, 'I will not hear this crying; I can't bear it, and I will not hear any child cry so. Here, Bell, take care of this child, if no more work is done for a week.' And he would linger to see if his orders were obeyed, and not countermanded.
When Isabella went to the field to work, she used to put her infant in a basket, tying a rope to each handle, and suspending the basket to a branch of a tree, set another small child to swing it. It was thus secure from reptiles and was easily administered to, and even lulled to sleep, by a child too young for other labours.

Promised emancipation

After emancipation had been decreed by the State, some years before the time fixed for its consummation, Isabella's master told her if she would do well, and be faithful, he would give her 'free papers,' one year before she was legally free by statute.

In the year 1826, she had a badly diseased hand, which greatly diminished her usefulness; but on the arrival of July 4, 1827, the time specified for her receiving her 'free papers,' she claimed the fulfilment of her master's promise; but he refused granting it, on account (as he alleged) of the loss he had sustained by her hand. She pleaded that she had worked all the time; but her master remained inflexible.

But Isabella inwardly determined that she would remain quietly with him only until she had spun his wool–about one hundred pounds–and then she would leave him, taking the rest of the time to herself.

 'Ah!' she says, with emphasis that cannot be written, 'the slaveholders are TERRIBLE for promising to give you this or that, or such and such a privilege, if you will do thus and so; and when the time of fulfilment comes, and one claims the promise, they, forsooth, recollect nothing of the kind: and you are, like as not, taunted with being a LIAR; or, at best, the slave is accused of not having performed his part or condition of the contract.'…
‘Just think of us! so eager for our pleasures, and just foolish enough to keep feeding and feeding ourselves up with the idea that we should get what had been thus fairly promised; and when we think it is almost in our hands, find ourselves flatly denied! Just think! how could we bear it?’

Sojourner was to have been freed on July 4, 1827, but she continued with her master till the wool was spun, and the heaviest of the 'fall's work' closed up, after which she ‘concluded to take her freedom into her own hands, and seek her fortune in some other place’.


And so Sojourner escaped [see observation] but her former owner Dumont pursued her and eventually found her with the Waggoners who proved to be her saviours.

Narrative Of Sojourner Truth, A Northern Slave, Emancipated From Bodily Servitude By The State Of New York, In 1828. – Olive Gilbert

When her master saw her, he said, 'Well, Bell, so you've run away from me.'
'No, I did not run away; I walked away by day-light, and all because you had promised me a year of my time.'
His reply was, 'You must go back with me.'
Her decisive answer was, 'No, I won't go back with you.'
He said, 'Well, I shall take the child.'

Mr. Isaac S. Van Wagener then interposed, saying, he had never been in the practice of buying and selling slaves; he did not believe in slavery; but, rather than have Isabella taken back by force, he would buy her services for the balance of the year–for which her master charged twenty dollars, and five in addition for the child. The sum was paid, and her master Dumont departed; but not till he had heard Mr. Van Wagener tell her not to call him master–adding, 'there is but one master; and He who is your master is my master.'
Isabella inquired what she should call him? He answered, 'call me Isaac Van Wagener, and my wife is Maria Van Wagener.'

Isaac and Maria Van Wagener were Quakers.  Thus what they did was quite unusual, as Quakers are and were totally anti-slavery of any kind; forbidden by their beliefs to own slaves, Isaac nevertheless bought her from Dumont in order to free her.

With these noble people, who, though they could not be the masters of slaves, were undoubtedly a portion of God's nobility, she resided one year, and from them she derived the name of Van Wagener; he being her last master in the eye of the law.

Illegal Sale of her Son.

Just before Isabel had run away from Dumont, he had illegally sold her child, a boy of five years, to a Dr. Gedney, who finding the boy too small for his service, sent him back to his brother, Solomon Gedney. This man disposed of him to his sister's husband, a wealthy planter, by the name of Fowler, who took him to his own home in Alabama.  The law expressly prohibited the sale of any slave out of the State.

And the saga of how she started on foot and alone, to find the man who had thus dared, ‘in the face of all law, human and divine’, to sell her child out of the State; and if possible, to bring him to account for the deed, is a very very long one.

Mrs Dumont was characteristically abusive and unhelpful.  But in reply Isabella said 'Oh my God! I know'd I'd have him agin. I was sure God would help me to get him. Why, I felt so tall within–I felt as if the power of a nation was with me!'

After leaving her former mistress, she called on Mrs. Gedney, mother of the man who had sold her boy, who was equally unhelpful.  At this point, Isabella earnestly begged of God that he would show to those about her that He was her helper; and she adds, in narrating, 'And He did; or, if He did not show them, he did me.'

Peter goes astray

The account of subsequent events is provided in the observations, including the vision she had.

Her husband, quite advanced in age, and infirm of health, was emancipated, with the balance of the adult slaves of the State, according to law, in the summer of July 4, 1828.  For a few years after this event, he was able to earn a scanty living, and when he failed to do that, he was dependent on the 'world's cold charity,' and died in a poorhouse.

Isabella had herself and two children to provide for [her daughter and her rescued son]; her wages were trifling.  And she had great difficulty finding a home for them all.  Isabella and her son had been free about a year, when they went to reside in the city of New York; a place which she would doubtless have avoided, could she have seen what was there in store for her, for there Peter her son went astray, ‘ drawn into a circle of associates who did not improve either his habits or his morals’.  Eventually Peter was found a job on a whaling ship to keep him out of trouble, and after a few letters, she heard no more from him.

Mr. James Latourette and mission work

When Isabella went to New York City, she went in company with a Miss Grear, who introduced her to the family of Mr. James Latourette, a wealthy merchant, and a Methodist who, the latter part of his life, felt that he had outgrown ordinances, and advocated free meetings, holding them at his own dwelling-house for several years previous to his death. She worked for them, and they generously gave her a home while she laboured for others, and in their kindness made her as one of their own.

At that time, the 'moral reform' movement was awakening the attention of the benevolent in that city. Many women, among whom were Mrs. Latourette and Miss Grear, became deeply interested in making an attempt to reform their fallen sisters, even the most degraded of them; and in this enterprise of labour and danger, they enlisted Isabella and others, who for a time put forth their most zealous efforts, and performed the work of missionaries with much apparent success. Isabella accompanied those ladies to the most wretched abodes of vice and misery, and sometimes she went where they dared not follow. They even succeeded in establishing prayer-meetings in several places, where such a thing might least have been expected.

But things went very wrong for her there eventually as she became involved in the scandals surrounding a false prophet called Matthias, who with the help of a Mr Pierson relieved her of all her savings

She leaves New York to become the Sojourner

Her next decision was, that she must leave the city; she felt called in spirit to leave it, and to travel east and lecture.

She had never been further east than the city, neither had she any friends there of whom she had particular reason to expect anything; yet to her it was plain that her mission lay in the east, and that she would find friends there. She determined on leaving; but these determinations and convictions she kept close locked in her own breast, knowing that if her children and friends were aware of it, they would make such an ado about it as would render it very unpleasant, if not distressing to all parties.

Having made what preparations for leaving she deemed necessary,–which was, to put up a few articles of clothing in a pillow-case, –about an hour before she left, she informed Mrs. Whiting, the woman of the house where she was stopping, that her name was no longer Isabella, but SOJOURNER; and that she was going east. And to her inquiry,

'What are you going east for?' her answer was,

'The Spirit calls me there, and I must go.'

She left the city on the morning of the 1st of June, 1843 and from that moment preached in many towns.   If she came upon a religious group and “was invited to join them in their religious exercises, she accepted the invitation–praying, and talking in her own peculiar style, and attracting many about her by her singing.”

In general it was the novelty of her views that attracted people to her talks 'They listened eagerly to Sojourner, and drank in all she said; …..she soon became a favorite among them; that when she arose to speak in their assemblies, her commanding figure and dignified manner hushed every trifler into silence, and her singular and sometimes uncouth modes of expression never provoked a laugh, but often were the whole audience melted into tears by her touching stories…. Many were the lessons of wisdom and faith I have delighted to learn from her.' . . . . 'She continued a great favorite in our meetings, both on account of her remarkable gift in prayer, and still more remarkable talent for singing, . . . and the aptness and point of her remarks, frequently illustrated by figures the most original and expressive. ‘


Eventually she started to search for ‘a quiet place, where a way-worn traveller might rest’ and she settled in Northampton. In 1844, she joined the Northampton Association of Education and Industry in Northampton, Massachusetts. Founded by abolitionists, the organization supported women's rights and religious tolerance as well as pacifism. They lived on 470 acres (1.9 km2), raising livestock, running a sawmill, a gristmill, and a silk factory.  She passed her time, working wherever her work was needed, and talking where work was not needed.  
'She would not receive money for her work, saying she worked for the Lord; and if her wants were supplied, she received it as from the Lord. ….. She wrote to me from thence, that she had found the quiet resting place she had so long desired. And she has remained there ever since.'

While there, Truth met William Lloyd Garrison, and in 1845, she joined the household of George Benson, the brother-in-law of William Lloyd Garrison.  Truth started dictating her memoirs to her friend Olive Gilbert, and in 1850 William Lloyd Garrison privately published her book, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave. That same year, she purchased a home in what would become the village of Florence in Northampton for $300, and spoke at the first National Women's Rights Convention in Worcester, Massachusetts. In 1854, with proceeds from sales of the Narrative and cartes-de-visite entitled "I sell the shadow to support the substance," she paid off the mortgage held by her friend from the Community, Samuel L. Hill.

Final years and death

Over the next 10 years, Truth spoke before dozens, perhaps hundreds, of audiences. From 1851 to 1853, she worked with Marius Robinson, the editor of the Ohio Anti-Slavery Bugle, and traveled around that state speaking. In 1853, she spoke at a suffragist "mob convention" at the Broadway Tabernacle in New York City; that year she also met Harriet Beecher Stowe.

On September 3, 1857, she moved, along with her daughter, Elizabeth Banks (age 35), and grandsons, to Battle Creek, Michigan, where she joined the nucleus of the Michigan abolitionists, the Progressive Friends.  During the Civil War, Truth helped recruit black troops for the Union Army. In 1864, she was employed by the National Freedman's Relief Association in Washington, D.C., where she worked diligently to improve conditions for African-Americans.  In October 1864, she met President Abraham Lincoln.

In 1870, Truth tried to secure land grants from the federal government to former enslaved people, a project she pursued for seven years without success. While in Washington, D.C., she had a meeting with President Ulysses S. Grant in the White House.  Truth spoke about abolition, women's rights, prison reform, and preached to the Michigan Legislature against capital punishment.

She never retired.  Truth died at her Battle Creek home on November 26, 1883.


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