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Sojourner Truth

What's the Main Idea?

Object Description

Biography: Sojurner Truth

Biography: Harriet Tubman

Probing Further

Sojourner Truth, seated portrait

What's the Main Idea?

Object Description

Abolitionist and women's rights advocate Sojourner Truth was enslaved in New York until she was an adult. Born Isabella Baumfree around the turn of the nineteenth century, her first language was Dutch. Owned by a series of masters, she was freed in 1827 by the New York Gradual Abolition Act and worked as a domestic. In 1843 she believed that she was called by God to travel around the nation--sojourn--and preach the truth of his word. Thus, she believed God gave her the name, Sojourner Truth. One of the ways that she supported her work was selling these calling cards.


Sojourner Truth
Given the name Isabella at birth, Sojourner Truth was born in the year 1797, in Hurley, New York. She was enslaved for approximately twenty-eight years of her life. As "property" of several slave owners, when she was ten-years old, Isabella was sold for $100 and some sheep. Dutch was her first language, and it was said that she spoke with a Dutch accent for the reminder of her life. Although she was unable to read, Truth knew parts of the Bible by heart.

As an abolitionist and traveling preacher, Isabella understood the importance of fighting for freedom. After her conversion to Christianity, she took the name Sojourner Truth: "Sojourner because I was to travel up and down the land showing people their sins and being a sign to them, and Truth because I was to declare the truth unto the people." This new name reflected a new mission to spread the word of God and speak out against slavery. As a women's rights activist, Truth faced additional burdens that white women did not have, plus the challenge of combating a suffrage movement which did not want to be linked to anti-slavery causes, believing it might hurt their cause. Yet, Truth prevailed, traveling thousands of miles making powerful speeches against slavery, and for women's suffrage (even though it was considered improper for a women to speak publicly). In a speech given at the Women's Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, in 1851, Truth proclaimed that "If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back and get it right-side up again." It was here, too, that Truth gave her most famous speech, entitled, "Ain't I a Woman." This speech sternly chastises those who feel women and blacks are inferior. The speech, like her preaching, is eloquent and passionate.

Sojourner Truth has the distinction of being the first African American woman to win a lawsuit in the United States; the first was when she fought for her son's freedom after he had been illegally sold. Later, when she was accused by a newspaper of being a "witch" who poisoned a leader in a religious group that she had been a part of, she sued the newspaper for slander and won a $125 judgement. Truth died at the age of 84, with several thousand mourners in attendance. In December of 1883, just after her death, The New York Globe published an obituary which read in part: "Sojourner Truth stands preeminently as the only colored woman who gained a national reputation on the lecture platform in the days before the [Civil] War."

Harriet Tubman
Harriet Tubman, born Araminta Ross, was the granddaughter and daughter of slaves who lived on the Broadas Plantation in Dorchester County, Maryland. She was taken from her parents and hired out at the young age of six. She always kept running away until somehow she was able to remain with her parents. Once, while attempting to intervene during the beating of another slave, the then thirteen year-old Tubman had her skull fractured by a 2-lb weight. As a result of this deliberate assault, she suffered from blackouts for the remainder of her life. Harriet Tubman escaped from her enslavement during the summer of 1849, one year before Congress enacted the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. At one point, there was a $40,000 reward offered for her recapture.

Following the North Star, Tubman eventually ended up in Philadelphia, where she found shelter and friends, and learned about the secret network that made up the Underground Railroad. As a conductor on the Underground Railroad, Tubman, who was called "Moses" by many blacks (after the biblical figure who led the Jews from Egypt), returned to the South approximately eighteen times, freeing more than 300 people, including her own aged parents. The great abolitionist and orator, Frederick Douglass, wrote Tubman, ". . . Most that I have done and suffered in the service of our cause has been in public, and I have received much encouragement at every step of the way. You, on the other hand, have labored in a private way. I have wrought in the day -- you in the night."

During the Civil War, Tubman worked as a nurse, scout and spy for the Union Army helping them immensely in their fight against the Confederates. After the War, Tubman focussed her attention on education and became a strong proponent raising money for black schools. In 1908 she started a home for elderly and needy blacks called the Harriet Tubman Home in Auburn, New York. She died in Auburn, on March 10, 1913.

Probing Further

  1. Sojourner Truth fought to end slavery, and was also an ardent supporter of women's rights. In what ways did suffragists, such as Susan B. Anthony, support abolitionists?

  2. In addition to Sojourner fighting for abolition and women's rights, during the Civil War, she sang and preached to raise money for black soldiers serving in the Union army. Research what other African American women, such as Harriet Tubman and Charlotte Forten did toward abolishing slavery and supporting the Union army during the Civil War.

  3. During the Civil War when Union armies advanced into the South, blacks rushed to volunteer for them. Told that this was a "white man's" war, instead of being allowed to fight as soldiers, slaves became contrabands of war. Study the drawing by Alfred Waud called Contrabands Coming into Camp. By studying the sketch, what do you think "contrabands" means?

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