Sojourner Truth: Voice for Abolition and Women

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The Civil War

"Ain't I a Woman?" Speech
The Narrative of Sojourner Truth
Remembering Sojourner Truth, by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Sojourner Truth was one of the most powerful advocates the abolitionist and women's movements ever had. Tall with a commanding presence about her, she worked tirelessly for both the end of slavery and the beginning of new rights for women.

She was born into slavery in 1797, in Hurley, New York. Her birth name was Isabella Baumfree, and she was one of 13 children but never got to know her siblings because they were all quickly sold. She was enslaved in a Dutch settlement and spoke only Dutch until she was 11. (When she finally did learn English, she spoke it with a Dutch accent, one that she would never lose.) She worked for a total of five masters. She gained her freedom with the passage of the New York Anti Slavery Law of 1827. She was married and had five children.

She lived with a Quaker family for awhile and gained an appreciation for religion, education, and public speaking. From that point onward, she devoted her life to speaking out in public, first about religion and then against the evils of slavery and the oppression of women. She educated many people in the North to the terrible things that slaves had to endure at the hands of their masters, describing in detail beatings and separation of families and such.

She changed her name to Sojourner Truth in 1843. In that same year, she arrived at the Northampton (Massachusetts) Association of Education and Industry, a community of people dedicated to the abolition of slavery. There, she met such famous people as Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison.

One of the main results of the antislavery movement in the North was a renewed focus on the rights of women. A drive for equal voting rights began in earnest with a national convention in 1848 at Seneca Falls, New York. Other gatherings followed, and awareness of women's unhappiness grew. Truth attended the Women's Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, in 1851 and gave a famous speech titled "Ain't I a Woman?" In this speech, she reminded the large audience that the right to vote shouldn't extend to only white women.

She moved to Battle Creek, Michigan, in 1857 and continued to travel and speak out for the rights of slaves and women. After the Emancipation Proclamation was announced, she moved to Washington, D.C., and helped with the new Freedmen's Village. She met President Abraham Lincoln, who assured her that he had heard of her and her famous speeches.

Truth's last great cause was to have a national plan for giving land in the newly explored West to former slaves. This plan had many people behind it but never mustered enough support in Congress to get it enacted.

Amazingly, Sojourner Truth never learned to read or write. She spent much of her early years in slavery and then, as she put it, didn't have time to learn. She was a powerful speaker, though, and had much to say about the treatment of women and African-Americans. A quick wit, she often turned hecklers into admirers with sharp barbs of her own. She found a friend in fellow abolitionist Olive Gilbert, who wrote down her dictations and published them as The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave.

She died in 1883, at her home in Battle Creek.

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Social Studies for Kids
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David White