American Biography – Sojourner Truth (Isabella Van Wagener)

American Biography – Sojourner Truth (Isabella Van Wagener)
Sojourner was born in New
Amersterdam, New York around
1797. Her father, whose name was
Baumfree, had been sold into
slavery as a young man. He was
originally from the Gold Coast. Her
mother’s maiden name was
Elizabeth, although her fellow
slaves new her by her African
name, Mau-Mau-Bett. Sojourner’s
name at birth was Isabella.
In 1806, her owners sold her
for $100 and, it was rumoured,
some sheep. Over the next twenty
years she was sold twice more. In
the meantime, she had married and
given birth to five children. Four of
her children were sold away from
Her last owner had promised
to set her free in 1826. When he
did not honour his promise, she had
a vision that she should simply take
her freedom. Accordingly, she took her remaining child and walked away. She was
taken in by a family named Van Wagener. First, they bought her from her owner,
then they set her free. In their honour, she adopted the name Isabella Van Wagener.
The first act she undertook as a freed woman was to sue for the return of her
young son. She had found that the boy had been sold to a plantation owner in
Alabama; under the laws of the state of New York, the sale had been illegal.
Although penniless, a former slave, and a woman, she was able to get her son back.
In 1835, she was accused of having tried to poison a prominent white
businessman and his wife. The accusation came from the businessman; Isabella
sued him for slander. The jury found in her favour and awarded her damages of
$125, a large sum in those days.
Isabella was a deeply religious person. Whenever she spoke in public she
would begin her talk with the words, “Children, I talk to God and God talks to me.”
In 1843, she decided to become a wandering preacher. About this time she took the
name “Sojourner Truth” (the name indicated truth that remains in one place for a
while, then travels on.) She was a spell-binding speaker, even if her language was
not always grammatically correct. Women did not speak out in public; for a black
woman to have so – and to have done so successfully – reflects the appeal that she
had for her listeners. When one of her audience was asked to describe her speaking
style, he responded that he could not do it because “(one might) as well attempt to
report the seven apocalyptic thunders.”
During her travels she came to reside in Northhampton, Massachusetts and
became involved in the abolitionist movement. She began to make speeches on
behalf of their cause throughout the North. In 1850 her biography, The Narrative of
Sojourner Truth, was written by an abolitionist. Members of the movement sold it at
their meetings to finance their cause. After the Civil War broke out, she traveled
throughout the North to raise supplies for black Union regiments.
When the Civil War had been won, she worked with freed slaves to find their
children who had been kidnapped and sold into slavery. She also took a leading part
in the desegregation of the streetcars of Washington D.C. She also tried to establish
settlements for freed Blacks in Kansas and Missouri.
As well, she became involved in the
movement for Women’s Rights. She
described herself as “A Self-Made
Woman”. At a meeting of the American
Equal Rights Association she expressed
her beliefs: “There is a great stir about
colored men getting their rights, but not a
word about the colored women; and if
colored men get their rights, and not
colored women theirs, you see the colored
will be masters over the women, and it
will be just as bad as it was before…I am
above eighty years old; it is about time for
me to be going. I have been forty years a
slave and forty years free, and would be
here forty years more to have equal rights
for all. I am kept here because something
remains for me to do; I suppose I am yet
to help break the chain. I have done a
great deal of work; as much as a man, but
did not get so much pay. I used to work in
the field and bind grain, keeping with the
cradler; but men doing no more, got twice
as much pay…I suppose that I am the only
colored woman that goes about to speak
for the rights of the colored woman. I
want to keep the thing stirring, now that the ice is cracked…”
Despite her pleas, only black men were given the right to vote; women, black
or white, did not receive the right to vote until 1920.
What did Sojourner Truth accomplish for herself, for her family, for black
Americans, and for women?