Nonviolent responses to racism did not start with Martin Luther King, but instead began in the mid-19th century championed by both Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth. One can say that the word “truth” combined with Sojourner, which connotes traveler, embodies the life work of Sojourner Truth as an activist for social reform in American history.
Sojourner Truth was born in slavery in 1797 to James and Elizabeth Baumfree in Ulster County, New York, then a Dutch settlement, as Isabella Baumfree. She was one of 13 children. As a young child, she spoke only Dutch until she was sold at the age of nine years and subsequently forced to speak English. Her second owner, Charles Hardenbergh, died in 1808, and she was sold to John Neely for $100 along with a herd of sheep. While with Neely, Isabella was beaten and harshly treated for mispronouncing terms in English. In her own words, it was at this early age that she began to embrace religion through fervent prayer.
Between the years 1808 and 1810, Isabella was sold twice more. She was purchased by Martinus Schryver for $105, then only a year later she was sold to John Dumont in 1810. She remained with the Dumonts from 1810 to 1827. While in the Dumont home, Isabella endured harsh punishments that also may have involved sexual abuse and harassment. In 1815, Isabella entered a forbidden relationship with a slave called Robert who had a different owner. One night, after Robert managed a secret visit with Isabella, he was savagely beaten, never to be heard from again. He never knew that he and Isabella had a baby daughter from their secret love affair.
John Dumont forced Isabella to marry in 1817 to an older slave named Thomas, and they had four children together. Isabella eventually ran away from the Dumont home in 1827, leaving with her daughter Sophia. Isaac and Maria Van Wagenen helped her and they paid twenty dollars to her owner to allow her to stay with them. Through the aid of Quaker abolitionists Isabella was able to retrieve her son Peter from a plantation in Alabama, becoming the first African American to sue successfully in court over the issue of slavery, proving he had been sold in an illegal sale. Isabella left Ulster County with a white evangelical teacher by the name of Miss Gear in 1829 after claiming to have undergone a serious religious conversion.
Between the years 1829 and 1834, Isabella Baumfree began to develop her skills as a public speaker and as a dynamic preacher. She began to preach regularly at camp meetings in the late 1820s and through the 1830s. During this time, she met the religious reformer Elijah Pierson, who advocated a strict following of the Old Testament. He led a small group in his home where Isabella came to serve as the housekeeper. Isabella embraced this religious revivalism and along with it, the utopian cooperative ideal because she was seen as a spiritual equal. It was at this time that she also met Prophet Robert Matthias.
Isabella moved to New York City with little or no possessions, eventually becoming an itinerant preacher. In 1843, she formally changed her name to Sojourner Truth, informing friends that she was “called” by the Holy Spirit on June 1, or the day of Pentecost. Sojourner Truth joined the Northampton Association of Education and Industry in Massachusetts in 1844, thereby broadening her role in American reform. The Northampton Association of Education and Industry was founded by abolitionists and consisted of 210 members living on 500 acres of farmland. They promoted women’s rights, antislavery activities, and cooperative labor through the running of saw mills, operating a silk factory, and raising livestock. Sojourner Truth became acquainted with William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and David Ruggles while at Northampton.
On the eve of the Civil War and during the war, Sojourner Truth became a popular supporter and orator for the antislavery cause, women’s rights, spiritualism, and nonviolence. She attended the Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, in 1851, where she delivered her now famous “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech. In 1853, Sojourner Truth spoke at a suffragist convention and met Harriet Beecher Stowe. Sojourner was also influenced by the Progressive Friends, a splinter sect of the Quakers, and she eventually sold her home in Northampton in 1857 to relocate near the Progressive Friends in Harmonia, Michigan.
In 1858, when challenged about her gender, Truth reportedly bared her breasts before a crowd of spectators. She continued to speak out against slavery and supported the Union’s cause during the Civil War by calling for the enlistment of African American troops. Taking his grandmother's stance, her grandson James Caldwell served with the all black 54th Regiment of Massachusetts.
After the War, Sojourner Truth continued to fight for civil rights. She was a powerful voice in favor of universal suffrage in the years immediately after the Civil War, insisting that to give black men, but not black women, the vote, would establish dangerous inequalities within the African American community. “There is a great deal of stir about colored men getting their rights,” Truth affirmed in one speech, “but not a word about the colored women; and if colored men get their rights, and colored women not theirs, the colored men will be masters over the women, and it will be just as bad as before.”
Sojourner Truth worked for the National Freedman’s Relief Association, a government camp for refugee slaves, and the Freedman’s Hospital. She also worked to assist the Freedmen’s Bureau in relocating refugee slaves from Washington to Ohio and Michigan. While in Washington, she was instrumental in calling for the desegregation of streetcars. After the war, she moved to Battle Creek, Michigan, in 1867. She continued to preach, teach, and advocate for reform through the 1870s. In 1871, she was one of the first women to vote in a Michigan election.