by Tamera Lynn Kraft
Sojourner Truth was born a slave who lived a life of purpose as an abolitionist and women’s rights activist. She was the first black woman to successfully petition the courts to free her son from slavery. She is most famous for her speech, “Ain’t I a Woman” at an Ohio woman’s rights convention in 1851 and devoted her life to serve God, end slavery, and gain rights for African Americans and women.
She was born Isabella Baumfree, the slave of a Dutch man, Colonel Hardenbergh, in Swartkill, New York in 1797. Her father, James Baumfree, was a slave captured in Guinea. Her mother, Elizabeth, was the daughter of Guinea slaves. She was one of 12 children. That area of New York was control by the Dutch at the time of her birth, and everyone in the household spoke Dutch, including Isabella.
After Colonel Hardenbergh’s death, ownership of the Baumfrees went to his son Charles. Charles died in 1806, and the family was separated at a slave auction. Nine-year-old Isabella was sold with a flock of sheep for $100. Her new owner, John Neely, was a violent man. She was sold two more times within two years and finally ended up as the property of John Dumont in West Park, New York. Isabella learned to speak English during this time.
In 1815, Isabella entered a relationship with a slave named Robert from a neighboring farm. They had a daughter, Diana, but Robert’s owner forbade the him from seeing Isabella, and they never saw each other again. In 1817, Dumont forced Isabella to marry an older slave on the farm named Thomas. Together they had a son, Peter, and two daughters, Elizabeth and Sophia.
In late 1826, Isabella escaped to freedom with her infant daughter, Sophia. Her other children stayed behind. She made her way to the home of Issac and Maria Van Wagener, a Quaker couple who bought her from Dumont and freed her. It was during this time, Isabella gave her life to Christ stating God showed her in a vision.
In 1827, all slaves in New York were emancipated. At this point, Isabella found out that her son Peter had been illegally sold to a man in Alabama. She petitioned the court and won, the first time a black woman successfully challenged a white man in court. Peter was returned to her from the South.
Isabella moved to New York City with her son Peter in 1829. She worked as a housekeeper for Christian evangelist Elijah Pierson. During this time, her doctrine became confused, and she became a housekeeper of a cult leader known as Prophet Matthias. Shortly later, Elijah Pierson died, Matthias was accused of poisoning him. She also joined the Millerites who predicted Christ would return in 1843.
In 1939, Isabella’s son Peter took a job on a whaling ship called the Zone of Nantucket. She received three letters for Peter in 1840 and 1841. When the ship returned in 1842, Peter wasn’t on board. She never heard from him again.
Isabella was devastated by her son’s loss and the Millerite prediction that didn’t come true. In 1843, she sought God. Wanting to make a fresh start, she asked God for a new name. In a vision, God gave her the name Sojourner . She later said it was "because I was to travel up an' down the land, showin' the people their sins, an' bein' a sign unto them." She asked God for a second name "'cause everybody else had two names; and the Lord gave me Truth, because I was to declare the truth to the people." She became a Methodist and declared her new name on June 1, 1843 saying, "The Spirit calls me, and I must go." At this point she began to travel and preached about the abolition of slavery.
She joined the Northampton Association of Education and Industry, an organization the supported women’s rights, abolition, and pacifism. During this time she met famous abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass and David Ruggles. In 1850, Sojourner dictated her memoirs to Olive Gilbert and they were published by William Lloyd Garrison as The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave. The notoriety left her open to attacks. She was once told the building she was to speak in would be burned if she preached, and she replied, "Then I will speak to the ashes." Another time, she was physically assaulted by a mob and had to walk with a cane for the rest of her life.
Sojourner began touring regularly with abolitionist George Thompson speaking to large crowds on the subjects of slavery and human rights. She was one of several escaped slaves, along with Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, to rise to prominence as an abolitionist leader and a testament to the humanity of enslaved people.
In May of 1851, Sojourner delivered her most famous speech to the Ohio Women's Rights Convention in Akron. She continued to tour Ohio with Robinson to publicize the antislavery movement in the state. She also brought controversy by preaching about women’s rights.
During the Civil War, Sojourner Truth helped recruit black troops for the Union Army. She encouraged her grandson, James Caldwell, to enlist in the 54th Massachusetts Regiment. In 1864, Sojourner was also called to Washington, D.C., to contribute to the National Freedman's Relief Association. Sojourner met more than once with President Abraham Lincoln about her experiences. In 1865, she tried to force desegregation on Washington streetcars by riding in the cars designated for whites. After the war, she tried unsuccessfully to secure land grants from the government for former slaves arguing the property ownership would free them from servitude of wealthy landowners.
Sojourner continued to speak about women’s rights, universal suffrage, and prison reform until the day she died. She died at her home in Battle Creek, Michigan, on November 26, 1883. She is buried alongside her family at Battle Creek's Oak Hill Cemetery. She is known as one of the greatest abolitionists and champion of right for all in the 19th century. Her unwavering faith in God is what fueled her passion despite the obstacles.
Tamera Lynn Kraft has always loved adventures and writes Christian historical fiction set in America because there are so many adventures in American history. She has received 2nd place in the NOCW contest, 3rd place TARA writer’s contest, and is a finalist in the Frasier Writing Contest.
Her novellas Soldier’s Heart and A Christmas Promise are available on Amazon. Her novella Resurrection of Hope will be released in July.