Sojourner Truth, Isabella Baumfree

Sojourner Truth circa 1870 (Photo in the public domain; National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)

Isabella Baumfree (some sources say "Bomefree") is the birth name of Sojourner Truth (1797?–1883). Born into slavery in Swartekill, Ulster County, New York, she had several masters and, thus, several last names. She ran away from her master when he refused to honor his promise to grant her freedom in 1826 ahead of New York's abolition of slavery in 1827. She was taken in by the Van Wagenen family in New Paltz, New York, where she became a fervent Christian.

In 1829, she moved to New York City, where she worked as a housekeeper for evangelist preachers and where she felt called to ministry. At the age of forty-six, she renamed herself Sojourner Truth: “...the Lord gave me Sojourner because I was to travel up and down the land showing the people their sins and being a sign unto them. Afterwards I told the Lord I wanted another name, ‘cause everybody else has two names, and the Lord gave me Truth because I was to declare the truth to the people.” And that truth was for all people, as she attempted to strengthen the moral character of an entire nation.

She joined the National Association of Education and Industry, an abolitionist group, in Florence, Massachusetts, launching her career as an equal rights advocate. She set out on a mission, traveling on foot (and sometimes in borrowed horse and buggy) from state to state, preaching about freedom and women’s rights. Because she had never learned to read or write, in 1850, she dictated her autobiography, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth, to Olive Gilbert. She is best known for her speech Ain’t I a Woman? delivered to the Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, in 1856. During and after the Civil War, she worked in Washington, D.C., recruiting Black soldiers, advocating for Black refugees, and finding jobs for freed Black slaves. In 1864, because of her work for the abolitionist movement, President Abraham Lincoln invited her to the White House.

In 1867, she moved to Battle Creek, Michigan, to be close to some of her children. There, she continued to speak out for human rights and women's suffrage. She died in Battle Creek in 1883.

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