The Hardenburghs, owners of Ms Truth’s family, were of the Netherland-American community and Ms Truth grew up with Dutch as her first language. On the death of Charles Hardenburgh in 1806 Ms Truth was sold along with a flock of sheep for US$100 and separated from her family.
Her first owner, John Neely, was a cruel and violent man, and Ms Truth was sold twice more until in 1815 she settled on the property of John Dumont. It was here that Ms Truth learned to speak English. She fell in love with a fellow slave named Robert, and had a daughter named Diana. As Robert was the property of a neighbouring farm, his owner objected to the match because any child of the union would be owned by Ms Truth’s slave-owner, and the couple were permanently separated. Robert was beaten by his owner, and later died of his injuries. Ms Truth herself suffered at the hands of Dumont’s wife, and she was unable to see Robert again.
Dumont forced Ms Truth to marry Thomas, a slave on his property, in 1817. From this match she had two daughters, Elizabeth and Sophia, and a son, Peter. Dumont reneged on a promise to emancipate Ms Truth and she escaped in 1826, one year before New York State legally emancipated all slaves. She was taken in by Isaac and Maria Van Wagener and when Dumont traced her they bought her freedom for US$20, insisting she was free and addressed them as equals. Both were staunch Christians and Ms Truth became a devout convert herself.
Ms Truth could only take Sophia, her youngest daughter, as her other children were legally obliged to serve as bound servants until their mid-20s, but she never forgot them. When she found out that 5-year-old Peter had been illegally sold as a slave to a property owner in Alabama she took the new owner to court with the aid of an activist Quaker group, and won his release. This marked the first time a black woman had successfully challenged a white man in court.
By 1831 Ms Truth was working as a housekeeper for Elijah Pierson, a Christian Evangelist. She converted to Methodism and began housekeeping for and preaching with Robert Matthews (known as Prophet Matthias), whom she met at Pierson’s home. Soon afterwards, Ms Truth moved to a Methodist commune with Matthias. The commune was accused of sexual impropriety and Ms Truth and Matthias were accused of poisoning Elijah Pierson. This charge was dropped and Ms Truth successfully sued for libel.
In 1842 Ms Truth’s son Peter went missing from the whaling ship The Nantucket, and she never heard from him again. The following year, she moved to Springfield, Massachusetts, and it is here that Ms Truth took the name Sojourner Truth and devoted her life to the abolition of slavery and to spreading the Methodist message.
In 1843 Ms Truth joined the Northampton Association of Education & Industry, a community including abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass and David Ruggles, dedicated to a broad range of equality causes including abolitionism, pacifism and women’s rights. The community disbanded in 1846, unable to maintain its self-sufficient lifestyle. Ms Truth remained in Northampton, buying a property in her own name.
Ms Truth’s activism was ignited and she was a speaker at the first National Women’s Rights Convention in Worcester, Massachusetts. In May 1851 Ms Truth delivered her most famous speech, now known as “Ain’t I a Woman?”, to the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akron. Some scholars question whether her speech actually used the phrase, as it was not attributed to Ms Truth until 12 years after the fact. As the speech is renowned for Southern dialect and Ms Truth spoke Dutch and North-American English, this debate continues.
Between 1851 and 1853 Ms Truth worked with Marius Robinson, editor of the Ohio Anti-Slavery Bugle, and she continued to tour the county giving speeches advocating equality. Ms Truth was considered a radical in abolitionist circles because she allied the cause to the fight for women’s rights. She was accused in a meeting in 1858 of being a man, as she was nearly six feet tall and quite imposing. Not intimidated, she bared her breast to prove the hecklers wrong.
During the Civil War she recruited black soldiers including her grandson James Caldwell who was her constant companion throughout her life. In 1864 Ms Truth was called to Washington DC and advised Abraham Lincoln on her experiences and beliefs. During this time she worked with freed slaves at a refugee camp in Virginia and was employed by the National Freedman's Relief Association. Segregation remained after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and Ms Truth went riding on buses marked “for whites only”, although her campaign for land grants and jobs for freed slaves was unsuccessful. An expressed fear of hers was that once abolition was achieved, emancipation for women would be forgotten, a fear that was sadly realised.
Ms Truth died on 26th November 1883 in Battle Creek, Michigan, where she had moved in 1857 with daughters Diana and Elizabeth and their families. As well as equal rights for women and abolition of slavery, she was a champion of prison reform, a staunch opponent of capital punishment and a temperance advocate. She is remembered as a woman ahead of her time, and as a hero to activists worldwide.
FOTW No. 13 by Kayla Calkin, “This is What a Feminist Looks Like Facebook” group:
Blog by Tina Price-Johnson