Sojourner Truth: The Slave That Sued Her Master & Won

Sojourner Truth: Her Early Life

Back when New York was still mainly Dutch, Sojourner Truth was born in a small, isolated farm.

Dutch was her native mother tongue – and all through her life she had an accent when speaking English.

Her father was bought from Ghana, and her mother was captured in Guinea.

Sojourner Truth still grew up to become the only black woman who sued a white man and won (twice!).

She also published a best-selling book, became a sought-after speaker throughout the US, and performed one of the most famous speeches in American feminist history.

She was born in 1797 as Isabella Baumfree.

At just 9 years old, she was sold along with a herd of sheep for $100. She was later sold several more times through her lifetime.

The farm owner forced her to marry another slave on the farm to increase the number of slaves he owned. Her three children were born from this marriage: Peter, Elizabeth, and Sophia.

Sojourner Truth: How She Got Her Freedom

In 1826, her owner broke an agreement they made to release her. She decided to escape with her daughter Sophia. Years later, she said,

I did not run away, I walked away by daylight….”

Shortly after her escape, she found out that her five-year-old son, Peter, was illegally sold into slavery in Alabama.

How could an illiterate Black woman without any possessions, whose Mother tongue wasn’t even English, stand against a white farm owner, who spoke perfect English?

Any other woman would have given up, but not Truth.

She decided to sue her former owner and demand that her son would be returned to her. To everyone’s astonishment, she won the trial and reunited with her son.

It was the first time that a Black woman won a lawsuit against a white man.

Shortly after, she experienced a divine revelation, converted to Evangelism, and changed her name to Sojourner Truth. She joined a religious preacher who was later revealed to be a cult leader.

When it became clear that he was a con artist, some of the cult leaders tried to pin the blame on Truth. She didn’t bat an eye. Instead sued them for defamation.

Again, she won the lawsuit.

She dedicated the rest of her life to abolishing slavery and helping slaves escape into freedom.

She was one of the most famous speakers against slavery, along with Harriet Tubman and Fredrick Douglas.

Her memoir, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave, became a bestseller.

Since she didn’t know how to read or write, she dictated the book to a friend. The book is one of only a handful of first-person accounts of slavery in the North.

Abolition wasn’t the only social issue that Truth dedicated her life to. She was one of the first feminists in the United States and one of the first to speak about what we now call Intersectionalism: the intersection of social rifts or struggles.In 1851, at a conference for women’s rights in Ohio, she delivered her speech Ain’t I A Woman, one of the most famous speeches in the history of the feminist movement. The speech is still taught in schools throughout the United States.

She didn’t cut anyone any slack in her speech.

She criticized both the women’s rights movement, as well as the abolition movement, for ignoring Black women. She stressed that Black women were both Black and women, and they couldn’t be expected to choose between women’s rights or the abolition of slavery and that both movements were equally important to them.

Other Women Anti-Slavery Fighters You Should Know

Sojourner Truth: Later Life & Death

With the start of the Civil War, Truth traveled throughout the North and convinced Black people (including her grandson) to join the forces.

With the end of the war, she was invited to Washington, D.C, to assist in establishing a government office that would create a rehabilitation program for freed slaves.

There, she met Abraham Lincoln several times.

She continued to travel throughout the US, speaking up for women’s rights and rehabilitation of freed slaves, as long as she was able to.

Sojourner Truth: Death & Legacy

Truth passed away in 1883, at the age of 86.

Truth is an American treasure, truely one of the most remarkable black women in US history.

Ain’t I a Woman (see full text of the speech below) is still considered one of the most important and most quoted speeches in the US’s history.

It was quite an amazing accomplishment for someone born into slavery who never learned how to read or write.

Sojourner Truth: Full-text of “Ain’t I A Woman” Speech

Delivered at the 1851 Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio

Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something
out of kilter.

I think that ‘twixt the Negroes of the South and the women
at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty

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

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

And ain’t I a woman?

I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well!

And ain’t I a woman?

I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me!

And ain’t I a woman?
Then they talk about this thing in the head; what’s this they call it?
[member of audience whispers, “intellect”]

That’s it, honey. What’s that got to do with women’s rights or Negroes’ rights?

If my cup won’t hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn’t you be mean not to let me have my little half measure full?
Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ‘cause Christ wasn’t a woman!

Where did your Christ come from?

Where did your Christ come from?

From God and a woman!

Man had nothing to do with Him.
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!

And now they is asking to do it.

The men better let them.
Obliged to you for hearing me, and now old Sojourner ain’t got nothing
more to say.

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