American Lives 1: Sojourner Truth

by Gail Forman

Clock Icon 10 minute read

Sojourner Truth

Sojourner Truth was born a slave. When she became free, she told many people about slavery. She also supported women's rights. People listened to her. She helped change the United States.

Hard to Forget

People said that Sojourner Truth was a wonderful speaker. Her voice was very low. It was powerful and strong. She chose her words perfectly. In just a few words, she thrilled her listeners. And she sang beautifully.

Truth stood almost six feet tall. She was thin. But she was strong from her years of hard work as a slave.

Born a Slave

Sojourner Truth was born a slave in New York State. A Dutch family owned her. So Dutch was her first language. She later learned to speak English. But she never lost her Dutch accent.

Truth was born in about 1797. No one knows exactly when. People didn't keep careful records about slaves. She was born somewhere in Ulster County. Her parents named her Isabella Baumfree.

Truth lived the typical life of a Northern slave. She was separated from her parents at age 11. She was sold to another owner. She suffered abuse. She carried the scars from a beating all her life.

Free at Last

New York State began to free slaves on July 4, 1827. But Truth didn't wait. In 1826, she walked away. Truth had five children. She carried her youngest with her. She didn't go far. She stayed with a family that lived nearby.

During this time, Truth became religious. She helped start a Methodist church. Late in 1828, she moved to New York City. She stayed there for about 15 years. Her faith grew stronger. She became a preacher.

A New Name

In 1843, Isabella changed her name to Sojourner Truth. Then she left New York. She walked and preached along the way. After several months, Truth reached Northampton, Massachusetts. A group there opposed slavery. Some members worked actively to end it. Truth joined the group.

The Narrative of Sojourner Truth

The group at Northampton broke up in 1846. But Truth stayed there until the mid-1850s. At this time, she told her story to a friend. She told about her life as a slave. She explained her religious faith. Her friend wrote the story for her. (Truth never learned to read or write.) Truth published the book as The Narrative of Sojourner Truth.

Fight against Slavery

Many people in the United States opposed slavery. Truth met many of the leaders at Northampton. She began to preach against slavery.

Truth spoke in meetings across the country. She said that slavery was wrong. She also talked about her religious beliefs. It was a powerful message. She spoke simply. But she got everyone's attention. She made people listen.

The Civil War ended slavery in the United States. Truth worked to help the freed slaves. She raised money for food and clothing. She tried to get schools for them.

Women's Rights

Truth also talked about women's rights. In the 1800s, women had few rights. They could not vote. Few went to school. Married women could not own property. Married women's wages belonged to their husbands.

Truth became famous for her speeches and her leadership. The fight went on for many years. Slowly, women gained their rights. They won the right to vote in 1920. Other rights came even more slowly.

The Final Years

In the 1860s and 1870s, Truth had several serious illnesses. But she kept working. She traveled and gave speeches.

Truth lived in Battle Creek, Michigan, with two of her daughters. Another child and grandchildren lived nearby. In her final years, she stayed close to home. Sojourner Truth died in 1883.

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