Sojourner Truth c 1797-1883 is perhaps the most famous black woman in
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Sojourner Truth (c. 1797-1883) is perhaps the most famous black woman in American
history, but only recently have historians begun to discover new "truths" about her. A slave for
nearly thirty years, the illiterate Truth gained fame as an itinerant minister and outspoken advocate
for African Americans and women. Even today Truth endures as a symbolic heroine who
championed the rights of all people, and her image can be found on T-shirts, buttons, calendars,
and a United States postage stamp issued in 1986.
Truth's origins hardly suggested that she would become a national icon. Born Isabella
Baumfree around 1797 in New York State, Truth was born a slave and remained so until 1826.
Although she never lived on a plantation or in the South, Truth experienced first-hand the
brutality of slavery. As she related in her autobiography, Narrative of Sojourner Truth, first
published in 1850, one master scarred her for life when she was only nine years old. Like many
enslaved African Americans, Isabella was sold several times, as were her siblings and children, a
reminder that slave masters in Northern states were no less cruel and profit-minded than those of
Throughout her own life story, Truth documents her double bondage as an African
American and a woman in a society dominated by whites and men. Female slaves, for example,
often did both men's and women's work. One master boasted of Isabella that she was "better to
me than a man -- for she will do a good family's washing in the night, and be ready in the morning
to go into the field, where she will do as much at raking and binding as my best hands." Once she
gained her freedom, Truth labored as a domestic servant but remained poor, as related in her
Narrative: "she toiled hard, working early and late, doing a great deal for a little money, and
turning her hand to almost any thing that promised good pay. Still, she could not prosper."
Sojourner Truth's honest poverty in New York City was similar to that experienced by the
majority of free blacks in the antebellum North.
Truth might have faded into obscurity as an illiterate and anonymous black woman, but
she had a knack for pursuing a cause until it became a cause c‚lebrŠ. For example, in 1828 Truth
became the first black woman to take a white man to court in New York State -- and win. Her
young son, Peter, had been illegally sold to a plantation owner in Alabama, and Truth secured a
lawyer and prevailed in court to gain her son's freedom. In the mid-1830s, Truth lived and
worked within a religious cult led by a self-styled prophet, one Robert Matthews, who created an
autocratic "Kingdom of Matthias." When the cult imploded over charges of sexual promiscuity
and murder, Truth was accused by one white couple of trying to poison them. To clear her name,
Truth again went to court in 1835 and sued for slander, winning damages of $125.
Truth's subsequent fame grew out of intense religiosity centered on her embrace of the
Holy Spirit. When she was "born again" in June 1827, Truth joined thousands of other Americans
who found religion during a wave of revivals known as the Second Great Awakening. A
practicing Methodist, Truth's conversion spoke for many, as she explained: "God revealed
himself to her, with all the suddenness of a flash of lightning, showing her, 'in the twinkling of an
eye, that he was all over' -- that he pervaded the universe -- 'and that there was no place where
God was not.'" By finding and following the Holy Spirit, Truth marched in a lengthy historical
parade of African-American women who have adopted sanctified faiths, such as contemporary
Pentecostal and "holiness" churches.
Despite her conversion, Isabella would not become "Sojourner Truth" until 1843. Then
living in New York City, she felt called by the Holy Spirit on June 1, the day of Pentecost. Her
new name and identity went hand-in-hand, for "Sojourner Truth" became an itinerant preacher
whose mission was to exhort others to "embrace Jesus, and refrain from sin." Upon departing
from New York City in 1843, Truth believed, as did more than one million Americans, that the
end of the world was at hand. African Americans, in particular, foresaw an impending Day of
Judgment prompted by the continuing national sin of slavery, and in her wanderings, Sojourner
Truth preached for others to find Jesus before the second advent.
Truth soon made her way to
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American slaves, Sojourner Truth, Aint I a Woman?, Slavery in the United States, Free negro, Frances Dana Barker Gage, Frederick Douglass, Truth, Black feminism, Marching Song of the First Arkansas, Female slavery in the United States
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