A famous quote by Daenerys Targaryen, describes Sojourner Truth’s trauma exactly: “I have been sold like a broodmare. I’ve been chained and betrayed, raped and defiled.” Born Isabella Baumfree, Truth inspired hope in women and enslaved people alike, although her life was a difficult one.
She was born a slave to a family of 10-12 children in 1797, to parents captured from modern-day Ghana. Truth remained with her family for the first 9 years of her life in Esopus, New York, USA. In 1806, she was sold at an auction with a flock of sheep for $100. The price of a 12-volume encyclopedia was $20 in 1820. Some livestock and a girl were sold for the price of five books.
Truth described her new enslaver, John Neely, as cruel, recounting how he beat her daily. Truth was sold in 1808 to a tavern keeper in Port Ewen, New York. A year later, she was bought by John Dumont. He raped Isabella, then 13, on multiple occasions which angered Dumont’s wife. Common punishments for enslaved people included whippings, bondage, starving, and overworking.
Isabella fell in love with an enslaved man called Robert who was forced to work on a nearby farm. His owner denied their relationship, tearing apart the two lovers because he couldn’t own their children as Isabella was not his. Once, when Robert’s enslaver found him with Isabella, he beat Robert until Dumont stepped in. Truth never saw him again. Robert died a couple of years afterward.
She married an enslaved man named Thomas and afterward bore five children. One of whom died in childbirth, one born from being raped by Dumont around 1815 when she was 18. All four surviving children were the property of John Dumont.
The legislation for abolishing slavery began in 1799 but wasn’t finalised until 1827. Dumont promised to free her in 1826 but went against his word. Unable to take legal action, Truth ran away with her baby, Sophia. She couldn’t take her other children; they had to work as bound servants into their 20s before thinking of freedom.
She survived due to the kindness of long-time friends Maria and Isaac Van Wagenen who bought her and her baby from Dumont for $25. She stayed with them for a year.
In 1828, Truth became one of the first Black women to win a court case against a white man. Her son Peter, born in 1821, was illegally sold to an abusive enslaver in Alabama by Dumont. After a months-long court case, Truth got back her son.
Truth worked as a housekeeper, first for Elijah Pierson in 1829, and then for Robert Matthews. Matthews was a violent man and was found guilty of attacking his own daughter. Truth and Matthews were accused of killing Pierson and found guilty. Mathews received a lesser punishment.
Isabella changed her name to Sojourner Truth in 1843 after the Spirit of God asked her to preach the realities of the world. Truth was a part of several women’s rights and religious groups. She delivered speeches from 1844, her most famous being in 1851. “Ain’t I a Woman” was delivered at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention on a lecture tour through New York with a fellow abolitionist, George Thompson. Women at the time were seen as fragile, incapable things. Sojourner’s speech unveils how strong women are because she has had to be as strong as a man to survive as an enslaved person. It ends with the powerful line, “But man is in a tight place, the poor slave is on him, woman is coming on him, he is surely between a hawk and a buzzard.” Renditions of this oral piece can be found on Youtube.
Truth worked tirelessly for the rights of enslaved people. During the Civil War (1861-1865) Truth helped the Union Army, the body that wanted to keep the USA’s states together, recruit Black soldiers. In 1864, Sojourner became an employee for the National Freedman’s Relief Association in Washington, D.C. She helped improve the working and living conditions of Black people, especially free persons. She met President Abraham Lincoln in October 1864 because of her job and activism. In 1865, as she was riding in a streetcar to promote African Americans having goods like vehicles, a driver violently attempted to block her path. Truth had him arrested and won against him in court. Her late life wasn’t smooth sailing. She tried but failed to get land grants for former slaves in the late 1860s. In 1872, she was barred from voting for the federal election because of her race and gender.
Sojourner Truth died on the 26th of November 1883 in her Michigan home. Nearly a thousand people attended her funeral service.
Truth became the first Black female to have a statue in the USA Capitol buildings. This statue was added in 2009. She has many artworks, statues, places, and organisations bearing her name. Countless shelters for women who are homeless or being domestically abused have been set up around the USA called Sojourner Truth Houses.
In 1941, a 200-unit housing block for Black soldiers fighting in WW2 was built in Detroit. This was met with protest by the white population who wanted to keep the African Americans segregated. Providing shelter for soldiers who fought Hitler was met with men carrying bats and letters to authorities. This was 60 years after Sojourner’s death. I don’t need to tell you what else is happening to people of colour, especially Black people, in the USA. You already know; the news is everywhere because discrimination happens everywhere.
The year is 2022. It has already been 139 years since Sojourner Truth passed away. Still, people are being sold like broodmares, chained, betrayed, raped, and defiled. How many more lives will be ruined before change is brought forward?
Many, but we can reduce this number. Fight for yourself and especially for others. We are all capable of change. After all, before she was Sojourner Truth, the activist, she was Isabella Baumfree, the girl. Daenerys is a character, Sojourner is a person and we are people too. In the words of the late Sojourner Truth, “Truth is powerful and it prevails.”
See our Call to Action section to find resources to educate yourself and advocate.