Sojourner Truth was born as a slave called Isabella Van Wagener in Hurley, New York, around 1797, and freed in 1827 when New York State abolished slavery. Shortly afterward, she joined a Methodist church in New York and had a religious conversion experience. Around 1843, she became a wandering evangelist preacher traveling around New England, and changed her name to Sojourner Truth. The following year, friends directed her to the Northampton Association of Education and Industry, founded in 1842 as one of many reform communities seeking to attain their vision of a better society. Although not initially impressed by its appearance, she ended up staying for the rest of the Association’s existence and becoming a valued member of the community. During her time there, she met many lifelong friends and was exposed to the reform ideals of abolition and women’s rights on which the community had been founded. After the Association dissolved in 1846, many members stayed in Florence, including Truth. In 1850, she bought the lot at 35 Park Street from Samuel L. Hill for $300. By this time, she was touring widely and speaking for various reform causes, and in the same year her Narrative of Sojourner Truth was first published. She paid off the mortgage for her house with the proceeds of its sales, although her speaking kept her away from Florence for months at a time. She moved to Battle Creek, MI, in 1857, and lived there until her death in 1883.
Sojourner Truth and Women’s Rights:
In the early 1840s, the abolitionist movement experienced a major split, between more conservative, often religious, groups and the radical reformers represented by William Lloyd Garrison, who advocated for women’s rights, religious freedom, separation from political institutions, and reliance on ‘moral suasion’ to bring about social justice. The Northampton Association was of the Garrisonian strand of reform, and these were the ideas to which Truth was introduced during her time there. Many major reformers during this era, including Truth, were active in both radical abolitionist and women’s rights circles, and there was much overlap between the movements. Truth spoke at many women’s rights conventions, including one in May 1851 in Akron, Ohio, at which she supposedly made her famous ‘Ain’t I a Woman?’ speech. Recent scholarship has cast doubt on whether she spoke those exact words, as they appear only in a later account of the convention. However, Truth certainly spoke engagingly and provocatively for women’s rights. Drawing on her deep religious faith, she said that according to the Bible, a woman (Eve) had put the world wrong, so women should now have a chance to put it right. She asserted women’s equality through her own example, pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable behavior for women in the 19th century. The hard manual labor she had performed as a slave became a source of pride- she said she could work as hard as any man. Truth made a living as a public speaker, successfully brought cases to court, marched and performed sit-ins for reform causes, petitioned Congress, met with presidents, and tried to vote in the 1872 election. She also broadened the definition of reformer beyond the white, educated, middle-class women who primarily made up the women’s movement. In her life and person, Sojourner Truth combined the causes of abolition, racial equality and women’s rights and was a significant worker for social justice.