Sojourner Truth: The life and legacy of pioneering anti-slavery and women's rights activist

Truth's legacy is being remembered on the first day of Black History Month

Clémence Michallon
New York
Friday 01 February 2019 08:23
Sojourner Truth: The life and legacy of pioneering anti-slavery and women's rights activist

Sojourner Truth, a civil rights and women’s rights activist who made history by fighting for equality in the US, is being remembered on the first day of Black History Month.

Truth, whose legacy is the subject of a Google Doodle this Friday, was born Isabella Baumfree in Ulster County, New York, around 1797. She lived through the horrors of the slave trade and was bought and sold several times.

Prior to New York State’s emancipation of 4 July, 1827, which effectively ended slavery in the state, Truth fled with one of her at least five children.

An abolitionist family bought the rest of her services until the state’s emancipation legislation took effect, with Truth thus securing her freedom. She relocated to New York City in 1829 with two of her children, having successfully sued to be reunited with her young son, who had been illegally sold into slavery.

Truth became linked to missionary Elijah Pierson, drawing on her previous inclinations towards preaching. In 1843, she left New York City and changed her name to Sojourner Truth, telling her friends according to Wesleyan University: “The Spirit calls me [East], and I must go ... the Lord gave me Truth, because I was to declare the truth to the people.”

She joined an anti-slavery, pro-women’s rights organisation in 1844 and published her memoirs six years later. Truth gained traction as a speaker, delivering her most famous address, which contained the memorable phrase “Ain’t I a woman?” at the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio, in 1851.

“That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere,” Truth said in her speech, according to a transcript pulished by Fordham University.

“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!”

Portrait of American abolitionist and feminist Sojourner Truth (1797 – 1883), a former slave who advocated emancipation, circa 1880. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

During the Civil War, Truth supported black volunteer regiments by gathering supplies for them. She met with President Abraham Lincoln at the White House in 1864. Over the course of that same year, she helped integrate streetcars in Washington, DC, according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

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Truth also worked as a counselor for former slaves via the National Freedmen’s Relief Association.

She retired in 1875 and remained in Battle Creek, Michigan, until her death in November 1883.

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