Sojourner Truth Biography ID 20

She was born into slavery around 1797 in New York State’s Hudson River Valley, 80 miles from New York City. As a slave, she was known simply as “Isabella.” But a decade and a half after escaping from bondage, she adopted a new name. As Sojourner Truth, she became a legend in the struggle to abolish slavery and extend equal rights to women.

The youngest of some 10 or 12 children, she grew up in a single room in a dark and damp cellar, sleeping on straw on top of loose boards. For 16 years, from 1810 to 1826, she served as a household slave in upstate New York, and was sold five times. One owner beat her so savagely that her arms and shoulders bore scars for the rest of her life. She bore a fellow slave five children, only to see at least three of her offspring sold away. In 1826, just a year before slavery was finally abolished in the state, she fled after her owner broke a promise to free her and her husband. She took refuge with a farm family that later bought her freedom.

Isabella then moved to New York City, carrying only a bag of clothing and 25 cents. There she supported herself as a domestic servant. It was a period of intense religious excitement, and, although she lacked formal schooling, Isabella began to preach at camp meetings and on street corners.

In 1843, Isabella took on the name Sojourner Truth, convinced that God had called on her to wander the country and boldly speak out the truth. Her fame as a preacher, singer, and orator for abolition and women’s rights spread quickly and three incidents became the stuff of legend. During the late 1840s, when the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass expressed doubt about the possibility of ending slavery peacefully, she replied forcefully: “Frederick, is God dead?” Several years later, in a speech before a woman’s rights convention in Akron, Ohio, in 1851, she demanded that Americans recognize that impoverished African American women were women too, reportedly saying: “I could work as much and eat as much as a man—when I could get it—and bear de lash as well! And a’n’t I a woman?”

And in 1858, when a hostile audience insisted that the six-foot tall orator spoke too powerfully to be a woman, she reportedly bared her breasts before them. During the Civil War, she took an active role promoting the Union cause, collecting food and supplies for black troops and struggling to make emancipation a war aim. When the war was over, she traveled across the North, collecting signatures on petitions calling on Congress to set aside western land for former slaves. At her death in 1883, she could rightly be remembered as one of the nation’s most eloquent opponents of discrimination in all forms.

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