Sojourner Truth, born into slavery in 1797 as Isabella Baumfree in Swartekill (now Rifton), Ulster County on the western shores of the Hudson River, was a noted abolitionist and suffragist. She was a slave until 1827, the year New York finally outlawed slavery (though she had to leave some of her children behind when she left slave owner John Dumont’s homestead because the new law ordered that black children couldn’t be free until they first served as bound servants until their mid-twenties).
In 1828, Truth sued Dumont for the return for the return of her young son, who had been illegally sold to an out-of-state slaveholder, and won. It was the first legal case in America in which an Black American woman successfully sued a white man.
Though she moved to New York City immediately following the case, according to the Sojourner Truth Memorial in the Town of Esopus, her years in Ulster County resonated throughout her life. Truth’s early experiences as a slave in the area informed her speeches, infusing them with painful emotion and moral authority; she was, in effect, a living witness to slavery’s evils and hence a powerful agent in raising the conscience of her mostly white audiences.
After a spiritual awakening, Isabella took the name of Sojourner Truth in 1843 and became a Methodist, relocating to Northampton, Massachusetts. She joined the Northampton Association of Education and Industry in 1844, an abolitionist organization that also supported women’s rights and encouraged religious tolerance. There Sojourner met Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, and David Ruggles.
Though she could neither read nor write, in 1849, Truth began traveling the lecture circuit, giving speeches on woman suffrage as well as abolition. In 1850 William Lloyd Garrison privately published her book, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave., which she had dictated to her friend Olive Gilbert. Her most notable speech, Ain’t I a Woman?, was given in Ohio on May 24, 1851 at the Women’s Rights Convention.
Ain’t I a Woman?
Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter. I think that ‘twixt the negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what’s all this here talking about?
That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman?
I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?
Then they talk about this thing in the head; what’s this they call it? [member of audience whispers, “intellect”] That’s it, honey. What’s that got to do with women’s rights or negroes’ rights? If my cup won’t hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn’t you be mean not to let me have my little half measure full?
Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.
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.
Obliged to you for hearing me, and now old Sojourner ain’t got nothing more to say.
In 1858, someone interrupted her in the middle of speech, insisting that she was a man partially because she was nearly six feet tall and possessed a deep, powerful voice and also because many men at the time refused to believe that women could be good orators. In response, Truth opened her blouse and revealed her breasts.
Sojourner Truth not only was a woman; she was a true woman of influence.