Ain’t I a Woman: Sojourner Truth Carried the Torch for Freedom
By Kristina Garrison-Clark
Sojourner Truth was a preacher, author, abolitionist, and women’s rights activist in the 19th century. She was also a woman who experienced grief, sorrow, love, disappointment, and resistance. Her life story reveals her tribulations, afflictions, endurance, and hope. Her belief in God provided her guidance throughout her journey and provided her strength to endure and create hope for many generations to come.
Born around 1797 in Ulster County, New York, Sojourner Truth was born Isabella “Belle”, to her mother Elizabeth and father James, as a Dutch speaking slave. She was the second youngest of what was thought to be 12 children, although most of her siblings were sold before she could truly capture memories of them. As a child her mother taught her about God and prayer and revealed to her the direct access she had to God.
By the time she was 18 she had been owned by five slave masters. When she was around 9 years old her family was broken up and sold away from one another. Her father became ill and was viewed as a burden, so her mother was “set free” to care for him.
During her teenage years Sojourner was severely abused, misunderstood and subjected to harsh physical labor by her slave owner. During these years she began a relationship with Robert, a man from another farm, with whom she had her first child, James. Sadly, James died when he was a baby, and many have speculated that his death was caused by his mother being forced to meet the needs of the master’s children before her own.
After the death of James, she had a daughter, Diana, with Robert. Unfortunately, Robert and Sojourner were not allowed to wed due to Robert’s master objecting to the fact that their children would become the property of Sojourner’s master. Despite her relationship with Robert, her master assigned her a husband, Thomas, with whom she had 3 more children.
Sojourner Truth had cared for 13 children including her own and was told by her master that she could be set free a year early if she worked hard and stayed loyal. Sojourner worked hard and efficiently, believing that she would be set free at an earlier date, only to find that her master had a change of heart. She decided to run away with her daughter Sofia and stayed with the Van Wagoners, a Quaker family. They bought her freedom, and she worked to repay them. During this time, she learned that her son Peter had been sold out of state, which was illegal. She took this matter to court and became the first black woman to win a lawsuit in the United States.
In her adult life, Sojourner experienced what she described as being led by the spirit and changed her name from Isabella to Sojourner Truth. She moved across Long Island and began to preach. She met many popular religious figures during that time and was provided several opportunities to do so.
In 1844 she joined the North Hampton Association Education and Industry (NAEI), where she was introduced to prominent abolitionists. Here she was encouraged to give speeches about the evils of slavery. In 1850, she collaborated with Olive Gilbert to produce her autobiography, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth. Her lifestyle and lecture tours were funded by the proceeds of her book.
By the 1840s, Sojourner was active on the lecture circuit. She became the first woman to come to prominence as a speaker in the abolitionist movement in the U.S. In 1851, she was on a lecture tour that included a women’s rights conference in Akron, Ohio, where she delivered her famous “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech.
In her later years, Sojourner spent her time investing in others. She helped recruit troops to fight for the Union during the Civil War and encouraged them to add the abolition of slavery to the objectives for the war. She cared for hospital patients. She worked with former slaves who had been freed, supporting them in adjusting to life after slavery by teaching relevant life skills.
After the war, Sojourner continued to fight for civil and women’s rights. In 1881, she gave her last public lecture. By this point she had met three U.S presidents and spent decades publicly preaching and advocating for abolition, women’s rights and civil rights. In the last few years of her life, she was cared for by her daughter and doctor. She is thought to have died at 86 years old.
In Sojourner Truth, we find a resilient woman who participated in the struggle for freedom, not only for herself, but for all women and people of color. She fought for freedom against a system that refused to see every human as equal. She waded in the waters of hate, abuse and slander in hopes of creating a just system for generations to come. She leaves with us her legacy, and I hope that we take the torch and like her, blaze a trail of justice for the generations ahead.
Kristina Garrison-Clark is a wife, mother, minister, life coach, social worker and poet. She is a member of the Greater Mt. Zion Church in Austin, TX. She currently serves as a program manager, addressing black health disparities in mothers and infants.