Though the Colonies had achieved their independence from England 21 years earlier, African Americans’ would’t find their collective freedom for another 70 years. Born in 1797 in Ulster Country New York, Sojourner Truth (born as Isabella Baumfree) was born into slavery spending only the first nine years of her life with her parents and eleven other siblings before being sold. Between the ages of nine and thirteen she would be sold another four times to white men of various temperaments and would eventually bore her own five children into slavery as well. By the time her last child, Sophia, was born in 1826, the state of New York had been in the process of emancipation for quite some time and would in the next year free the slaves within their state.
With freedom on the horizon, yet not entirely imminent in 1826, Isabella Baumfree, left of her own free will, walking, rather than escaping the life of indentured servitude, with her infant in her arms. She was offered refuge and payment for employment by a New York family until the state’s emancipation laws had become official. Having had to leave her other children behind, once it was learned that her son Peter had been sold illegally at the age of five, Isabella, brought a legal suit against her former master, becoming not only the first African American woman to do so, but also the first woman to win. Her son returned to her would live his life as a free man before disappearing at sea as an adult.
As Northern and Southern aggressions escalated over the issue of slavery, Isabella took up the cause as her own, changing her name to Sojourner Truth in 1843. Freedom and a passion to bring it other slaves moved her to become a public figure speaking out as an abolitionist and human rights activist. She traveled the world until her death in 1883 speaking all over the Eastern seaboard and Mid-West for the cause, with her most famous speech being at the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio in 1863 entitled, many years later, the “Ain’t I A Woman,” speech. Her fame was furthered by the publication of “The Narrative of Sojourner Truth,” which was an account of her life as a slave, which bolstered her credibility as abolitionist and human rights advocate.
When war broke out, she dovetailed her advocacy efforts by recruiting African American men for the Union Army and by bringing them food and clothing once enlisted. Her own grandson, James Caldwell, fought for the 54th Massachusetts Regiment. Though the path of her mission crossed with that of the Suffragette movement for Women’s voting rights, the ideals of both groups were dissimilar enough to create a divide between them.
Sojourner Truth lived to see the escalation of tensions over the issue of slavery and its resolution. She spoke publicly until the end of her life. Sojourner Truth died November 26, 1883 in Battle Creek, Michigan. At her service over three thousand people attended to see the great heroine.