This is the grave of Sojourner Truth.
Ignore the ridiculous myth on the grave marker that Sojourner Truth was 105 when she died. She probably born in 1797 into slavery in Ulster County, New York. That’s right, New York. The Empire State was the center of slavery in the North going back well before the American Revolution and its elites, both in the Hudson Valley and in New York City, did all they could to hold onto the institution. Given the name Isabella Baumfree, she came from a large family with 10 or so siblings. But as was so often case, when the owner died in 1806, she was sold. Now, it’s impossible to really imagine a slave auction today, but it’s important to try. The horrors of this are just unspeakable. Her new owner routinely beat her. He then sold her in 1808 and then she was sold again in 1810. In 1815, she fell in love with an enslaved man. Because gradual emancipation was now the law in New York, the man’s owner forbade the relationship because didn’t any responsibility for humans he would not own. When the relationship was found, his owner beat him nearly to death. He never recovered and died a few years later. She never saw him again. She was also raped by her last owner and had a son out of it in 1815. This was the life of a slave, not in Mississippi or South Carolina. In New York, well into the 19th century.
Slavery finally ended for good in New York in 1827. Truth’s master, the rapist, refused to free her until that day. So she and her infant daughter escaped in 1826. She had some white supporters who bought her freedom. Then, when her evil master sold her son (her last three children were out of a consensual relationship with another slave) to Alabama rather than free him, she took him to court and won her case, one of the first times in American history that a black person successfully used the courts against a white person’s crimes. Her son was retrieved. He of course had been severely physically abused by his new master in Alabama because this is what white people did to slaves, even though he was a child.
Now, these white people she was living with were named Isaac and Maria Van Wagenen. And they, like many other reforming types in 1820s New York, were swept up in the maelstrom of the Industrial Revolution that led to the Second Great Awakening. That moment saw plenty of revivals among the mainstream Protestant denominations, but also a huge variety of cults, one-off preachers, scam artists, and more long-lasting religious movements, many of which included sexual experiments, from the polygamy of the Mormons to the celibacy of the Shakers. Well, Truth got into all of this. She moved to New York with her son and while there found a particularly unusual man to follow: Robert Matthews, who went as the Prophet Matthias. Truth became the housekeeper in his communal house that also including him seducing the wife of one of his followers. That follower ended up dying, quite likely poisoned by Matthews. Truth was suspected of being involved too. This whole case got a ton of headlines in the New York papers, which ate up the escapades of these weirdos. Matthews served a little time. How crazy are we talking about here? Joseph Smith once met him and thought he was completely insane. And this is a guy who started a religion based on a claim that he was supposedly delivered tablets from Christ that no one but he could see! This is who Truth followed.
Once that all fell apart, Truth continued to try and make her way in the world. Her oldest son took a job on a whaling ship and disappeared, never to be seen again. In 1843, she converted to Methodism and took the name Sojourner Truth. She gave herself that name because she decided to travel around and tell the truth about slavery. She still dabbled in the religious experimentation of the time, embracing the Millerites who were declaring the return of Christ sometime in 1844. Instead, James Polk was elected president. They faded from prominence.
In 1844 as well, Truth moved to Massachusetts to live on an abolitionist commune, the Northampton Institute of Industry and Education. The group was dedicated to a combination of women’s rights, pacifism, and religious tolerance, as well as abolitionism. Like most of these communes, it collapsed, in this case in 1846. She started dictating her memoirs and William Lloyd Garrison published them in 1850. This allowed her a little money and she bought her own home in Northampton, Massachusetts. She also began speaking out more publicly both on abolitionism and women’s rights. This led to her legendary “Ain’t I A Woman?” speech that she gave so many times, connecting women’s rights with black rights. She initially gave this at a women’s rights conference in Akron in 1851. It didn’t have a title, but the future title was the speech’s refrain, or at least this was what was said. It picked up the title when another reformer published it in 1863. But when this happened, it was published more how white people thought southern blacks spoke. But Truth was from New York and had never even been to the South. So this is unlikely. However, with very few exceptions, all of the slave narratives are basically semi-true retellings of stories to make Victorian era middle class white northern and European women readers want to buy them. So while we can take the basics as true, they are highly shaped texts. This includes what was reprinted of Truth’s speech.
In any case, Truth spent the next 15 years speaking about both women’s rights and black rights, often very bravely and in the face of great hostility. Once, when an asshole challenged her by saying she was a man, she flashed her breasts at the audience. And don’t underestimate the level of violence against these reformers. It was a very real threat. Like modern hippies, they served as a symbol for conservative white men to harass and beat up. She frequently faced hecklers and even mob violence. She once hid behind a tent during a riot because as the only black speaker, she feared being lynched. This was in 1844 in Northampton, Massachusetts.
In 1857, Truth finally found a real home. The Millerites had reformed under a new guise: the Seventh Day Adventists. They moved en masse to Battle Creek, Michigan. Truth went with them. There she bought a house (after a time in another nearby town) and lived the rest of her life. Her grandson was in the 54th Massachusetts. She fought for improved conditions for the freedmen in the Civil War and met President Lincoln while in Washington doing that work. She helped recruit black soldiers as well. She tried to get the Grant administration to give free land away to the freedmen, but he refused, even though she met with Grant personally. She tried to vote in 1872, but was of course denied the suffrage. She even got before the Michigan legislature and preached about the evils of capital punishment. She died in Battle Creek in 1883.
Sojourner Truth is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery, Battle Creek, Michigan.
If you would like this series to visit more of the nation’s leading African-American freedom fighters, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Thanks again for the donations this week. They will be well used to continue this series, I assure you. Fannie Lou Hamer is in Ruleville, Mississippi and Rosa Parks is in Detroit. Previous posts in this series are archived here.