She was born Isabella about 1797 in the town of Rosendale, Ulster County, New York. At that time no one wrote down and kept information concerning her birth. No one anticipated that this child of slaves would become an American legend.
Her parents were the slaves of Colonel Hardenbergh, a Revolutionary War colonel. Their names were James and Elizabeth. James was tall and straight, as Isabella would become. He was known as “Bomefree,” which meant tree. Elizabeth and James had ten or twelve children. All of their children had been sold except for Isabella, the youngest, and her older brother Peter. The loss of their children left her parents in grief and chronic depression. Her earliest memories were of her parents’ stories of the cruel loss of their other children. She feared impending disaster.
Her foreboding of separation came true when she was sold as a slave. When Isabella was about nine years old she was sold for $100 and taken away from her beloved father, mother, and brother. Colonel Hardenbergh had died and all his property, which included Isabella, was auctioned. Her parents were too old and sick to get any price so they were consigned to live in a hut belonging to a family who had no slaves of their own. Isabella is supposed to have said that her trials in life dated from this sale to a family named Neely. With this family she began working as a slave.
Truth was freed in 1827 by the New York State Emancipation Act. As a result of a religious vision, Truth left her home in New York City in 1843 with a new dress, 25 cents, and her new name—Sojourner Truth. Why did Isabella leave New York City and become “Sojourner Truth?” Why did she choose this name? Some accounts say that she chose “Sojourner” because she thought of herself as a wanderer among people. Many times she said that the Lord’s name is truth and that she took that as her last name after her greatest and only master. She felt that the city was a place of drama and robbery. There was a depression in the country after the Panic of 1837 and Truth, like many poor people, was working very hard and making very little money.
Truth joined a utopian community, the Northampton Association for Education and Industry. During the nineteenth century there was a great utopian movement. Many individuals joined idealized socialist communities, with resources and property held in common for the common good. The Northampton community believed in and practiced cooperation (they believed competition was evil). They believed in women’s rights, freedom of expression, liberal education, and the abolition of slavery.(8) One of the basic tenets of the Northampton Association was that slavery was evil and was the greatest contributor to the class conflicts of society. Many people visited the community because of its unusual intellectual and ideological bent, and it was there that Truth met Frederick Douglass in 1843.
“Truth,” Douglass said, was a “strange compound of wit and wisdom, of wild enthusiasm and flint-like common sense,” who “seemed to please herself and others best when she put her ideas in the oddest forms,” “Her quaint speeches,” he noted,”easily gave her an audience.”(9)
Truth traveled to the Midwest, New England, and the Middle Atlantic states attending abolitionist rallies. She spoke out against slavery, becoming the first African-American woman to make public speeches detailing the evil institution. From all accounts she was an eloquent speaker with great oratorical abilities. It made no difference that she could not read or write; the people who heard her were moved by her appearance and her speeches.
After the Civil War Truth became an advocate for the equal treatment of African-Americans, especially in education. She spoke on behalf of woman’s suffrage. At the second National Woman’s Suffrage Convention that was held in Akron, Ohio, in 1852 she made the famous address known as “Ain’t I a Woman.”
Well, children, where there’s so much racket, there must be something out of kilter. I think that twixt the Negroes of the South and the women of the North all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what’s all this here talking about? That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages and lifted over ditches and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages or over mud puddles, or gives me any best place—and aren’t I a women? I could work as much as a man, and eat as much, too, when I could get it, and bear the lash as well—and aren’t I a woman? I have borne children and seen them sold into slavery and when I cried out with a mother’s grief, none but the Lord heard me —and aren’t I a woman?(10)
Sojourner Truth died on November 26, 1883, aged about 86. Her funeral in Battle Creek, Michigan, was one of the largest ever. She and her family are buried there in Oak Hill Cemetery.