*This post contains Amazon Affiliated links in order to earn a commission to learn more read our Disclosure Policy*
Sojourner Truth was born Isabella “Belle” Baumfree in 1797. She died on November 26, 1883 but not before she made a big impact in America. She was an American abolitionist and women’s rights activist. Truth was born into slavery in Swartekill, New York, but escaped with her infant daughter to freedom in 1826. After going to court to recover her son in 1828, she became the first black woman to win such a case against a white man.
She gave herself the name Sojourner Truth in 1843 after she became convinced that God had called her to leave the city and go into the countryside “testifying the hope that was in her”. Her best-known speech was delivered extemporaneously, in 1851, at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio. The speech became widely known during the Civil War by the title “Ain’t I a Woman?”, a variation of the original speech re-written by someone else using a stereotypical Southern dialect, whereas Sojourner Truth was from New York and grew up speaking Dutch as her first language. During the Civil War, Truth helped recruit black troops for the Union Army; after the war, she tried unsuccessfully to secure land grants from the federal government for formerly enslaved people (summarized as the promise of “forty acres and a mule”).
A memorial bust of Truth was unveiled in 2009 in Emancipation Hall in the U.S. Capitol Visitor’s Center. She is the first African American woman to have a statue in the Capitol building. In 2014, Truth was included in Smithsonian magazine’s list of the “100 Most Significant Americans of All Time”.
Truth’s Life Work
In 1856, Truth bought a neighboring lot in Northampton, but she did not keep the new property for long. On September 3, 1857, she sold all her possessions, new and old, to Daniel Ives and moved to Battle Creek, Michigan, where she rejoined former members of the Millerite movement who had formed the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Antislavery movements had begun early in Michigan and Ohio. Here, she also joined the nucleus of the Michigan abolitionists, the Progressive Friends, some who she had already met at national conventions. From 1857 to 1867 Truth lived in the village of Harmonia, Michigan, a Spiritualist utopia. She then moved into nearby Battle Creek, Michigan, living at her home on 38 College St. until her death in 1883. According to the 1860 census, her household in Harmonia included her daughter, Elizabeth Banks (age 35), and her grandsons James Caldwell (misspelled as “Colvin”; age 16) and Sammy Banks (age 8).
During the Civil War, Truth helped recruit black troops for the Union Army. Her grandson, James Caldwell, enlisted in the 54th Massachusetts Regiment. In 1864, Truth was employed by the National Freedman’s Relief Association in Washington, D.C., where she worked diligently to improve conditions for African-Americans. In October of that year, she met President Abraham Lincoln. In 1865, while working at the Freedman’s Hospital in Washington, Truth rode in the streetcars to help force their desegregation.
Truth is credited with writing a song, “The Valiant Soldiers”, for the 1st Michigan Colored Regiment; it was said to be composed during the war and sung by her in Detroit and Washington, D.C. It is sung to the tune of “John Brown’s Body” or “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”. Although Truth claimed to have written the words, it has been disputed.
In 1867, Truth moved from Harmonia to Battle Creek. In 1868, she traveled to western New York and visited with Amy Post, and continued traveling all over the East Coast. At a speaking engagement in Florence, Massachusetts, after she had just returned from a very tiring trip, when Truth was called upon to speak she stood up and said, “Children, I have come here like the rest of you, to hear what I have to say.”
In 1870, Truth tried to secure land grants from the federal government to former enslaved people, a project she pursued for seven years without success. While in Washington, D.C., she had a meeting with President Ulysses S. Grant in the White House. In 1872, she returned to Battle Creek, became active in Grant’s presidential re-election campaign, and even tried to vote on Election Day, but was turned away at the polling place.
Truth spoke about abolition, women’s rights, prison reform, and preached to the Michigan Legislature against capital punishment. Not everyone welcomed her preaching and lectures, but she had many friends and staunch support among many influential people at the time, including Amy Post, Parker Pillsbury, Frances Gage, Wendell Phillips, William Lloyd Garrison, Laura Smith Haviland, Lucretia Mott, Ellen G. White, and Susan B. Anthony.
Who was Sojourner Truth? by Yona Zeldis McDonough
Almost 100 years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat, Sojourner Truth was mistreated by a streetcar conductor. She took him to court–and won! Before she was Sojourner Truth, she was known simply as Belle. Born a slave in New York sometime around 1797, she was later sold and separated from her family. Even after she escaped from slavery, she knew her work was not yet done. She changed her name and traveled, inspiring everyone she met and sharing her story until her death in 1883 at age eighty-six. In this easy-to-read biography, Yona Zeldis McDonough continues to share that remarkable story.
My Name Is Truth: The Life of Sojourner Truth by Ann Turner
Written in the fiery and eloquent voice of Sojourner Truth herself, My Name Is Truth will captivate readers just as Sojourner’s passionate words enthralled her listeners.
The text by acclaimed author Ann Turner and the paintings from award-winning illustrator James Ransome underwent expert review by two historians of the period.
This beautifully illustrated and impeccably researched picture book biography includes a detailed historical note and a list of suggested supplemental reading materials
So Tall Within: Sojourner Truth’s Long Walk Toward Freedom by Gary D. Schmidt
Sojourner Truth was born into slavery but possessed a mind and a vision that knew no bounds. So Tall Within traces her life from her painful childhood through her remarkable emancipation to her incredible leadership in the movement for rights for both women and African Americans. Her story is told with lyricism and pathos by Gary D. Schmidt, one of the most celebrated writers for children in the twenty-first century, and brought to life by award winning and fine artist Daniel Minter. This combination of talent is just right for introducing this legendary figure to a new generation of children.
Sojourner Truth’s Step-Stomp Stride by Andrea Pinkney
Born into slavery, Belle had to endure the cruelty of several masters before she escaped to freedom. But she knew she wouldn’t really be free unless she was helping to end injustice. That’s when she changed her name to Sojourner and began traveling across the country, demanding equal rights for black people and for women. Many people weren’t ready for her message, but Sojourner was brave, and her truth was powerful. And slowly, but surely as Sojourner’s step-stomp stride, America began to change.