Truth, Sojourner (c. 1799–1883)

Author:Cheryl I. Harris

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Sojourner Truth (née Isabella Baumfree), nineteenth-century ABOLITIONIST and FEMINIST, was born a slave, was

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not literate, and lived in poverty much of her life. Yet, in an age before mass media, she was a nationally renowned figure, known for her advocacy before, during, and after the CIVIL WAR.

Born in the Hudson River Valley in New York around 1799, she performed hard labor for a series of masters and was so renowned for her physical strength?she was nearly six feet tall?that her owner reneged on a promise to reward her exceptional hard work with her freedom. Refusing to rely anymore on a "slaveholders' promise," she freed herself by walking away from his farm in 1826, a year before the state's gradual manumission law freed her. Her five-year-old son was illegally sold in violation of the manumission law, and after a desperate search, she successfully sued to recover him.

In 1829, she left for New York City after experiencing a profound religious awakening. Her new life as preacher and advocate began on Pentecost, June 1, 1843, when she discarded her slave name and became Sojourner Truth. Leaving New York and joining the Northampton Association, an abolitionist community in Massachusetts, she became associated with important figures in the movement, such as WILLIAM LLOYD GARRISON and Frederick Douglass. In 1850, she authored her autobiography?an "as told to" account of her life story. By "selling the shadow to support the substance," as she often said, the book's sales proceeds became her primary and meager source of support.

Her lifelong work as a public speaker also began in earnest. By many accounts, she was a spellbinding speaker, often drawing on events from her difficult life to expose the evils of SLAVERY and reveal the interconnectedness between the abolitionist and feminist struggles. In 1851, Sojourner delivered a speech to an abolitionist convention in Akron, Ohio, where she made this linkage preeminent in what has become a piece of legendary oratory. As a formerly enslaved woman, Truth recalled that she had been worked "like a man," yet she was still a woman and like all women and black people was entitled to the rights due all human beings. This speech became well-known when, in 1863, Frances Gage, a prominent feminist, published a colorful rendition, using the phrase "And ar'n't I a woman?" Despite the fact that many historians consider it unlikely that this account is literally...

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