|Like all of her other portraits, this was taken in Sojourner Truth's old age and semi-retirement after the Civil War.|
On May 28, 1851 fifty-four year old Sojourner Truth mounted the platform and addressed the delegates to an Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akron. The meeting was held only three years after the inaugural Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York.
Truth was a former slave who had gained fame as a lay preacher and abolitionist speaker. Accounts differ as to whether she was fully welcomed or if there were some women afraid that her presence would antagonize men otherwise sympathetic to her cause. But Truth was already friendly with leaders like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and most of her audience that day were either already convinced abolitionists, or at least sympathetic.
The speech Truth gave has outlasted any other comments at the meeting and it is widely quoted by both feminists and African-American activists. But the speech she gave may not have been the one widely quoted with its repeated refrain of “Ain't I a Woman?”
Truth was born a slave in 1797 in Swartekill, New York. Her birth name was Isabella Baumfree, one of thirteen children. The Hardenbergh family that owned her was from old Dutch colonial stock and Dutch was her first language. She was sold along with a herd of sheep at the age of nine to English speaking tavern keeper John Neely for $100.
By her later accounts Neely beat and raped her. She was sold twice more becoming the property of John Dumont of West Park in 1810. Conditions were less harsh than with her previous owners and Isabella, called Belle, labored there for several years. She fell in love with a slave named Robert from a neighboring farm, but his owner forbad the relationship and beat him so severely that he later died. Robert fathered her first two children.
In 1817 Dumont selected another of his slaves, Thomas, to be her husband and he fathered three more children by 1826.
Under New York’s gradual emancipation law slavery would become officially ended on July 4, 1827. Dumont had promised her release early in exchange for “doing well and faithful,” but reneged after a hand injury left her less than a fully effective worker. Feeling cheated but determined to be fair to her master, she spun him 100 lbs of wool, what she thought her remaining time was worth and escaped with her infant daughter.
She could not take her other children because even under emancipation they would be held as bond servants until they were 21. She found a sympathetic home with Isaac and Maria Van Wagener who took her in and settled her debt with Dumont for $20. She stayed with them until emancipated under the law.
Learning that Dumont had illegally sold her five year old son south to Alabama, she sued her former master with the support of the Van Wageners and after several months was able to recover her son. She was the first black in New York State to successfully sue a white man.
During her time with the Wagner family she experienced a religious conversion and became a devout Christian.
In 1829 she moved with her son Peter to New York City to serve as housekeeper for evangelist preacher Elijah Pierson. Through Pierson she met the religious charlatan Robert Matthews, a.k.a. Matthias Kingdom and the Prophet Matthias who had bilked Pierson and several others out of two houses and large sums of money. Bella went to work for him in 1832. When Pierson died a short time later both she and Matthews were charged with his murder but acquitted. Mathews headed west in an attempt to strike up an alliance with the Mormon Prophet Joseph Smith leaving Belle behind.
Despite the notoriety of the trial she was able to scrape together a living in the city. Her son Peter signed on whaling ship in 1839 and after three letters never heard from him again.
In 1842 she adopted the name Sojourner Truth because, “The Spirit calls me and I must.” She became a Methodist, and like many others became a lay preacher and traveling evangelist mixing in a heavy dose of abolitionism. Gaining a reputation she was invited to join Northampton Association of Education and Industry in Massachusetts in 1844. One of many utopian social experiments of the era, the Association was founded by abolitionists and supported women’s rights and pacifism. Other members of the association included leading abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and Fredrick Douglas. Like other communal experiments of the era, the Northampton Association collapsed 1847 and Truth went to work as a housekeeper for Garrison’s brother-in-law.
While there she dictated her memoirs to her friend Olivia Gilbert. In 1850 Garrison arranged a private printing of The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave. The book was widely read in liberal circles and cemented Truth’s reputation. The same year she was able to buy her own home in Northampton for $300 and attended the first full National Women’s Rights Convention in Worcester, Massachusetts where she shared the platform such leaders as Lucy Stone, Paulina Kellogg Wright Davis, Ernestine Rose, Antoinette Brown as well as old friends Garrison and Douglas. More than 900 people attended the convention, which attracted wide, if sometimes derisive, coverage.
Truth came to the 1850 meeting in while on a western speaking tour with abolitionists George Thompson. The first published version of her speech was transcribed by local newspaperman Marius Robinson and was published a month after the event. The speech was stirring and contrasted the leisure afforded white women who were “put on a pedestal” with the grim “work or die” reality for Black women both slave and free. But it was rendered a standard English and no where included the words “Ain’t I a woman.”
Those were included, along with idiomatic—and stereotypical—southern Black speech patterns in a version of the speech published 13 years after it was given by one of the meetings organizers, Frances Dana Barker Gage. Gage’s version is the won widely quoted today. Yet it has its many doubters. It is unlikely that Truth, a native Dutch speaker who had spent her entire life well north of the Mason-Dixon Line, spoke with any kind of southern drawl, Black or otherwise. On the other hand, supporters of the Gage version argue that Robinson “cleaned up” Truth’s raw language for his genteel readers.
More telling are factual inaccuracies in the Gage version, including the claim that she had 13 children “most of which” were sold into slavery. In fact she had five children, one of whom was temporarily sold into slavery. Gage also embellished the circumstances of the speech, making it sound as if Truth spoke to a hostile audience, where as contemporary accounts, including her own, attested to a warm reception. The speech as recorded by Gage in 1863 began:
Wall, chilern, whar dar is so much racket dar must be somethin' out o' kilter. I tink dat 'twixt de niggers of de Souf and de womin at de Norf, all talkin' 'bout rights, de white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what's all dis here talkin' 'bout? Dat man ober dar say dat womin needs to be helped into carriages, and lifted ober ditches, and to hab de best place everywhar. Nobody eber helps me into carriages, or ober mud-puddles, or gibs 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?...
By contrast Robinson recorded:
I want to say a few words about this matter. I am a woman's rights. I have as much muscle as any man, and can do as much work as any man. I have plowed and reaped and husked and chopped and mowed, and can any man do more than that? I have heard much about the sexes being equal. I can carry as much as any man, and can eat as much too, if I can get it. I am as strong as any man that is now...
To my ears, the originally published journal sound much more likely to have been given by a woman who had been raised in the North, had spend many years in association with highly educated people, and made a living as a preacher and speaker.
Truth spent the next decade touring in support of abolition and women’s rights working in close association with Robinson. She had many colorful encounters with hostile audiences, including one where a heckler insisted that she was a man so she opened her shirt to show her breasts.
In 1856 she sold her Northumberland home and moved to the Battle Creek, Michigan area which she would consider home for the rest of her life. The household in her new home included a grown daughter, Elizabeth Banks and two grandsons.
With the outbreak of the Civil War she saw her older grandson, James Caldwell enlist in the famous Black 54th Massachusetts while she recruited other blacks to rally for the Union. In 1864 she was called to Washington to join the National Freedman's Relief Association to improve the lot of newly freed slaves. She met President Abraham Lincoln, and almost a hundred years before Rosa Parks insisted on riding Washington horse car trolleys effectively, if temporarily ending segregation on them.
She tried to claim her 40 acres and a Mule as a freedman herself, appealing to President Ulysses Grant himself in 1870. But despite seven years of effort was turned down because she was a woman and had been freed by a northern state years earlier.
Truth returned to speaking tours after the war then returned to Battle Creek to try to vote in the 1872 Election. But she was tiring out. Sojourner Truth died in her Battle Creek home on November 26, 1886 at the age of 86.