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Sojourner Truth’s zeal made her a star of black history

The remarkable black woman who called herself Sojourner Truth (1797−1883) was born into slavery and became one of the most able and famed spokeswomen for equality and change in American history. This despite the fact that she never learned to read and write and spoke only Dutch until she was sold.

She never lost her Dutch accent, but learned to speak English when she was sold and left her family at the age of 9. Born in Ulster County, N.Y., a Dutch settlement, she was first known as Isabella Baumfree, her last name that of her father’s owner.

Later, while working for the John Dumont family in Ulster, she was forced to marry Thomas, one of his slaves, and bore him five children. In 1827, New York had passed an emancipation law freeing all slaves, but Isabella had by then run away, taking her youngest child with her. While she was working for a family named Van Wagener, she discovered that her son was sold into slavery in Alabama. She sued in court and won his freedom, claiming his emancipation under the New York law and that he had been taken across state lines.

In 1829, Isabella moved to New York City, where she was to remain for 10 years. She worked then as a domestic and pursued her religious interests. Not long after experiencing a religious conversion, she became a traveling preacher, which throws some light on why she chose a new name: Sojourner Truth.

She had lost what savings she had after she left as the housekeeper for a religious reformer named Elijah Pierson, who led a small group of followers. He had encouraged her to preach. It was then, on June 1, 1843, that she changed her name and told her group of friends that “The Spirit calls me and I must go.”

In 1843, with her reputation for a fiery style of speaking, Sojourner traveled from the city to walk through Queens and then east to Huntington, attracting crowds as she passed along the way. Queens extended as far as Hempstead before 1898 when the Greater City came into being.

Next she joined a group in Massachusetts that was strongly anti−slavery, believed in religious tolerance and supported women’s rights and pacifist principles. While there, she met abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass. Eventually, the group failed to support itself and disbanded, debt−ridden, in 1846.

In 1850, she began dictating her memoirs to Olive Gilbert, an association member, called “The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave,” which was published privately by William Lloyd Garrison. This gave Sojourner an income, increased her speaking engagements and sold copies of her books.

In 1854, at the Ohio Woman’s Rights Convention, Sojourner gave her most famous speech, “Ain’t I a Woman ?”

In 1857, she moved to a town just west of Battle Creek, Mich. During the Civil War, she spoke for the Union and promoted enlisting blacks. When she met President Abraham Lincoln in 1864, he showed her the Lincoln Bible, given to him by the black people of Baltimore. After the end of the Civil War, she continued her work helping the newly freed slaves through the Freedman’s Relief Association and the Freedman’s Hospital in Washington.

After the Civil War ended, she campaigned for the federal government to provide former slaves with land in the West. She continued to tour and speak as she grew older. It made her happy to note that many freed slaves were migrating west on their own.

She would spend a year there, in Kansas, speaking in churches both black and white, helping them to gain support in building their new lives. This, however, was to be her last important task.

She died on Nov. 26, 1883, at the age of 86 and is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in Michigan, next to her grandson. A monument was erected in 1890 by Frances Titus, who had published the third edition of Sojourner’s “Narrative.” Among the posthumous honors she has received is being the first black woman honored with a bust in the U.S. Capitol in October 2008.

Joan Brown Wettingfeld is a historian and freelance writer.

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