A Vision of Hope
19th c. abolitionist, speaker, and human rights activist Sojourner Truth's vision of hope led her to fight steadfastly for the causes of freedom and equality.
Born into slavery around 1797, Sojourner Truth—known then as simply "Isabella"—led an early life filled with hardships. Isabella was second youngest child of James and Betsey Baumfree. Other siblings had been sold to other masters before she was old enough to remember them. Her mother introduced her to faith early in life, telling her and her brother that, "there is a God, who hears and sees you ... and when you are beaten, or cruelly treated, or fall into any trouble, you must ask help of him, and he will always hear and help you." Unable to read, write, or speak English, Isabella and her brother learned to recite the Lord's Prayer and passages from the Bible through memorization, in the Low Dutch language of the household.
Isabella, along with her youngest brother Peter, remained with their parents as the property of Charles Hardenburgh in Ulster, New York. The Hardenburghs were a prominent Dutch family with distinguished service in the American Revolution. Charles’s uncle, the Rev. Jacob Hardenburgh, was the founding president of Queen’s College (now Rutgers University). Upon Charles Hardenburgh's death, Isabella, then nine years old, was sold at auction to a slaver, going for the price of $100 and a herd of sheep. This auction signaled the start of a particularly dark time in Isabella's life. Sold to an English-speaking family, Isabella could not understand her instructions. The frequent miscommunications between Isabella and her new mistress led to repeated, savage whippings.
The Hardenburgh family home where Isabella Baumfree was raised as a child, c. 1909.
Home of Col. Johannes Hardenburgh, 1909, History of New Paltz New York and Its Old Families by Ralph LeFevre, State University of New York at New Paltz Sojourner Truth Library. Retrieved from https://commons.wikimedia.org
Slave Auction, 1815.
From the Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, An American Slave, Written by Himself, 1849. Retrieved from http://docsouth.unc.edu/
In these brutal moments, Isabella called on God for guidance and protection, "telling him all—and asking Him if He thought it was right." Reflecting on these prayerful moments in later life, she said, "though it seems curious, I do not remember ever asking for any thing but what I got it. And I always received it as an answer to my prayers." One time, she prayed for her father to come visit her and help her find a new master and, James Baumfree actually came to see her. Soon after, Isabella was sold to a new owner.
Isabella was sold for $105. After a year and a half with her new owner, the 13-year-old was sold again—this time to the man who would be her final master, John Dumont. During her toil on the Dumont family farm, Isabella was given as a wife to Thomas, a fellow slave whos
An illustration depicting the wedding tradition of "Jumping the Broom." Many weddings between slaves in the Antebellum South concluded with this tradition, as marriages between slaves were not considered legal.
Emily Clemens Pearson, Cousin Francks Household, or, Scenes in the Old Dominion, 1853, compiled by Jerome Handler and Michael Tuite and sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. Retrieved from http://www.slaveryimages.org/
In 1817, the State of New York passed a law granting freedom to slaves born before July 4, 1799. The law was set to take effect on July 4, 1827, but for her hard work and dedication, Dumont promised to grant Isabella her "free papers" a year before she was legally emancipated. When he failed to keep his promise, Isabella asked God to guide her to safety.
The next day she packed up her infant daughter, Sophia, and walked to the home of a friend, who directed her to the Van Wagenen family. Upon hearing her story, Isaac and Maria Van Wagenen took Isabella in and gave her a paying job in their household. When Dumont finally tracked down Isabella, the Van Wagenens paid him $25 to secure Isabella and Sophia's freedom. In 1826, at the age of 28, Isabella was finally free.
"An address, delivered on the celebration of the abolition of slavery," by Nathaniel Paul, July 5, 1827.
Nathaniel Paul, "An Address Delivered on the Celebration of the Abolition of Slavery," 1827, Albany, Printed by J. B. Van Steenbergh. Retrieved from https://catalog.hathitrust.org
Certificate from the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, uniting in marriage a couple that had been common-law husband and wife since 1843.
S. B. F. C. Barr, Superintendent, Wilson County, Tennessee, Certificate from the Bureau of Refugees, Freedman and Abandoned Lands, April 9, 1866, Learn NC. Retrieved from https://commons.wikimedia.org
The year of her emancipation began with heartbreak, with Isabella learning of the illegal and fraudulent interstate sale of her five-year-old son, Peter, by slave trader Solomon Gedney. Gedney’s brother had purchased the child from the Dumonts and placed him in Solomon’s charge. When Isabella complained to her mistress, Sally Dumont, she heard her through, and then replied — “Ugh! a fine fuss to make about a little nigger! Why, haven't you as many of 'em left as you can see to and take care of? A pity 'tis, the niggers are not all in Guinea!! Making such a halloo‑balloo about the neighborhood; and all for a paltry nigger!!!” The Dumont family showed no sign of contrition for the act, and Isabella turned to her faith once again for guidance. "I have no money," she told Mrs. Dumont, "but God has enough, or what's better! And I'll have my child again." Through the support of the Van Wagenen family, Isabella acquired the necessary funds for legal fees, and filed a complaint with the Ulster County grand jury. She won the case, and Peter returned to her in 1828. This victory marked the beginning of Isabella's faith-inspired activism.
This legal recognizance document concerns slave trader Solomon Gidney, who was alleged to have illegally and fraudulently sold Isabella Baumfree's son Peter into interstate slavery. This document financially commits Gidney to appear before the Court and may be associated with her legal victory.
Recognizance for Solomon Gedney, 1828, Ulster County Clerk of Courts. Retrieved from http://ulstercountyny.gov/
Isabella moved with her children to New York City in 1828, where she began practicing speaking in public, and discovered that people responded well to her. Her years in New York formed her ministry skills as she became involved in several Christian and moral causes through the influence and connections of her wealthy Methodist employers, Mr. and Mrs. James Latourette. While living in New York, she associated with an Adventist sect called the Kingdom of Matthias. Eventually disillusioned by its leadership, Isabella retreated from public involvement, but later had a profound spiritual experience. On June 1, 1843, the day of Pentecost, Isabella records hearing the call of God, who urged her to leave New York and to journey East to Long Island and preach the Gospel. After this experience she gave herself a new name, Sojourner Truth. Not only did the name signify her rebirth as an itinerant or sojourner to proclaim the truth, it marked the start of a new pilgrimage "to embrace Jesus, and refrain from sin."
Sojourner Truth lecture poster.
Sojourner Truth lecture poster, Berenice Bryant Lowe Papers, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan
Traveling through Long Island, Connecticut, and western Massachusetts, Truth survived on odd jobs and the kindness of strangers while she made her way as a wandering preacher. She arrived in Northampton, Massachusetts, in 1843, intending to stay for only two weeks. Instead, she settled there for 13 years, joining the Northampton Association for Education and Industry, a cooperative community. Through her work with the Association, Truth came in contact with some of the nation's most important antislavery leaders of the time, including Harriet Beecher Stowe, William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and Elisha Hammond. She also rose to greater prominence as a social reformer, active in the causes of abolition, racial equality and women’s rights.
In May 1851, while on a speaking tour for the antislavery movement, Truth decided to attend a nearby women's rights convention in Akron, Ohio. Seated near the platform, Truth listened patiently during a series of contentious lectures and debates on women's rights until she at last asked to address the entire audience. "Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter," she began. The oration that followed became her famed "Ain't I a woman?" speech.
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.
"Am I Not a Woman & a Sister" token, commissioned by the American Anti-Slavery Society in New York
"Am I Not a Woman & a Sister," 1838, Copper, 2.9cm, Luce Center, INV.13745, New-York Historical Society.
Photography ©New York Historical Society, http://www.nyhistory.org
Truth left Massachusetts in 1857 and relocated with three of her children to Battle Creek, Michigan, eventually earning enough money to convert a small barn into her final home. She continued to advocate for human rights. After the Civil War Truth joined the Freedman’s Bureau and began helping former slaves rebuild their lives. During an 1864 trip to Washington, D.C. with the Bureau, she met President Abraham Lincoln and received his commendation for her continued activism. Of the meeting, she said "I felt that I was in the presence of a friend, and I now thank God from the bottom of my heart that I always have advocated his cause, and have done it openly and boldly." Truth continued fighting for the causes of freedom and equality until her death on November 26, 1883, at the age of 86. Her last words were, "Be a follower of the Lord Jesus."
An unknown artist’s rendering of Abraham Lincoln's meeting with Sojourner Truth in 1864.
Abraham Lincoln showing Sojourner Truth the Bible presented by colored people of Baltimore, Executive Mansion, Washington, D.C., Oct. 29, 1864, c. 1893, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA. Retrieved from https://www.loc.gov
Lincoln's inscription in Sojourner Truth's Book of Life, a collection of letters and sketches about Truth’s life written subsequent to the original 1850 publication her Narrative of Sojourner Truth. The inscription reads: "For Aunty Sojourner Truth."
President Lincoln's inscription in Sojourner Truth's Book of Life, 1864, Collection of the Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan. Retrieved from http://www.sojournertruth.org/
Truth's journey to freedom, and her dedication to a life of activism, were inspired by her deep faith in God. Truth’s tried and tested hope in God’s presence and compassion sustained her during her early years of suffering and her later activism, and her later activism helped her to harness the advantage of her own freedom to secure liberty for others.