Abolitionist, evangelist, and feminist (1797?—1883)
Sojourner Truth was one of those rare, remarkable individuals who rise far above their intended station in life. What future could have been expected for a black female slave born into a nation controlled by free white men? Truth grew up with no schooling, and was unable to read or write — who could have imagined she would become one of America's greatest orators, or that she would produce (by dictating it to a neighbor) one of the 19th century's most inspirational autobiographies.
Not much is known about Truth's early years. Originally called Isabella, she was born at the end of the 1790s to slave parents owned by a wealthy Dutch family in Ulster County, New York. As a teenager working for a different household nearby in New Paltz, she bore five children to a fellow slave, at least three of whom were sold away from her.
After 17 years in New Paltz, Isabella escaped in 1827 by fleeing to a Quaker family. By the time she reached New York City, two years later, the state had decreed the emancipation of slaves, allowing her to stop running and hiding. Working as a servant, she became involved with various religious movements; in 1843, feeling that God had called her “to travel up and down the land, showing the people their sins and being a sign to them,” she renamed herself Sojourner Truth.
A charismatic speaker (pronouncing English with a Dutch accent) with a commanding presence (she was six feet tall), Truth became a powerful voice against racial oppression, and later, for the suffrage movement. In 1851, at a women's rights convention in Ohio, she gave her most famous speech, in which she repeatedly asked, “Ain't I A Woman?” Her words were not formally recorded until 12 years later, when Frances Gage, president of the convention, set down her gripping account of the talk.
Also in 1863, Harriet Beecher Stowe, in a long article for the April issue of The Atlantic Monthly, wrote about Truth that “I do not recollect ever to have been conversant with any one who had more of that silent and subtle power which we call personal presence . . . She seemed perfectly self-possessed and at her ease. An audience was what she wanted — it mattered not whether high or low, learned or ignorant. She had things to say, and was ready to say them at all times, and to any one.”
Sojourner Truth traveled as an itinerant preacher for about 10 years. She then settled in Battle Creek, Michigan for the last 30 years of her life, and her funeral there in 1883 was the largest that town had ever seen.