An evangelist, abolitionist, and feminist, Sojourner Truth (c. 1797-1883) is remembered for her unschooled but remarkable voice raised in support of abolitionism, the freedmen, and women’s rights. Tales of her aggressive platform style, of her challenge to Frederick Douglass on the issue of violence against slavery (“Frederick! Is God dead?”), and of her baring her breasts before a crude audience who had challenged her womanhood grace the pages of abolitionist lore.
Truth was six feet tall, blessed with a powerful voice (she spoke English with a Dutch accent), and driven by deep religious conviction. Harriet Beecher Stowe attested to Truth’s personal magnetism, saying that she had never “been conversant with anyone who had more of that silent and subtle power which we call personal presence than this woman.” Truth was born of slave parents owned by a wealthy Dutch patroon in Ulster County, New York. Details of her early life remain cloudy. What is clear is that her name was Isabella and she served a household in New Paltz, New York, from 1810 to 1827, where she bore some five children by a fellow slave. At least two of her daughters and one son were sold away from her during these years.
Isabella escaped slavery in 1827, one year before mandatory emancipation in New York State, by fleeing to a Quaker family, the Van Wageners, whose name she took. She moved to New York City, worked as a domestic, became involved in moral reform, embraced evangelical religion, started her street-corner preaching career, and eventually joined a utopian community in Sing Sing, New York. Illiterate and a mystic, Isabella nevertheless acquired a wide knowledge of the Bible and emerged in the 1840s in Massachusetts, working among the Garrisonian abolitionists. A popular platform figure, she told stories and sang gospel songs that instructed and entertained. Adopting the name “Sojourner Truth” in 1843, she became a wandering orator. In the mid-1850s she settled in Battle Creek, Michigan, her base of operations for the rest of her life.
During the Civil War, Truth tramped the roads of Michigan collecting food and clothing for black regiments. She traveled to Washington, D.C., where she met with Abraham Lincoln at the White House, and immersed herself in relief work for the freedpeople. During Reconstruction, Truth barely supported herself by selling a narrative of her life as well as her “shadows,” photographs of herself. She lent her unique skills to the women’s suffrage movement and initiated a petition drive to obtain land for the freedpeople, even suggesting the idea of a “Negro state” in the West. She preached cleanliness and godliness among the freedpeople and dictated many letters about the land question, which provide rich details about that aspect of Reconstruction.
Truth’s most important legacy is the tone and substance of her language. As an old woman she stumped the country providing emancipation with an eloquent epigraph: “Give ‘em land and an outset, and hab teachers learn ‘em to read. Den they can be somebody.” Few modern activists have better described politicians or the purpose of a petition drive than Truth did: “Send tons of paper down to Washington for them spouters to chaw on.” And when she was brutally knocked off of Washington’s segregated streetcars, she denounced racism: “It is hard for the old slaveholding spirit to die, but die it must.” She herself died of old age and ulcerated legs in 1883; her funeral and burial in Battle Creek was the largest that town had ever seen, testimony to her hold on America’s historical imagination.
The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.