The first Black woman to fight for women’s rights

By Murphy Browne Wednesday January 28 2015 in Opinion
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By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)

“Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman? If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.”

Excerpt from the speech “Ain’t I A Woman” by Sojourner Truth, reportedly delivered on May 29, 1851 at the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio.


Sojourner Truth was given the name Isabella Baumfree when she was born on January 30, 1797 in Hurley, Ulster County, New York. It has been speculated that Sojourner Truth was given the German last name Baumfree at birth because her parents, James and Elizabeth Baumfree, were enslaved by a German family.


Many decades later (when she was about 66-years-old), Sojourner Truth would be quoted in the April 1863 edition of the Atlantic Monthly (a magazine founded in 1857 in Boston, Massachusetts) speaking about her decision to change her name: “My name was Isabella; but when I left the house of bondage, I left everything behind. I wa’n’t goin’ to keep nothin’ of Egypt on me, an’ so I went to the Lord an’ asked him to give me a new name. And the Lord gave me Sojourner, because I was to travel up an’ down the land, showin’ the people their sins, an’ bein’ a sign unto them. Afterward I told the Lord I wanted another name, ’cause everybody else had two names; and the Lord gave me Truth, because I was to declare Truth to the people.”


The enslaved African Baumfree family was sold to a Dutch family and became the property of Johannes Hardenbergh.


In the Narrative of Sojourner Truth, which was first published in 1850, White abolitionist Olive Gilbert writes: “Of her first master, she can give no account, as she must have been a mere infant when he died; and she, with her parents and some ten or twelve other fellow human chattels, became the legal property of his son, Charles Ardinburgh.”


The Narrative of Sojourner Truth, written by Gilbert is the autobiographical account of Sojourner Truth’s life as an enslaved African child and woman in New York State and her escape to freedom as related to Gilbert. The enslaved Baumfree family of approximately 14 (two adults and 12 children) were made to sleep in the “cellar” under the hotel owned by Charles Ardinburgh/Hardenbergh, along with other enslaved Africans owned by Ardinburgh/Hardenbergh.


In the Narrative of Sojourner Truth, Gilbert writes of Sojourner Truth’s recollection of the horrors of slavery in that New York “cellar” dwelling under the hotel: “She shudders, even now, as she goes back in memory, and revisits this cellar, and sees its inmates, of both sexes and all ages, sleeping on those damp boards, like the horse, with a little straw and a blanket; and she wonders not at the rheumatisms, and fever-sores, and palsies, that distorted the limbs and racked the bodies of those fellow-slaves in after-life.”


Sojourner Truth was the second to last of her parents’ 12 children but she only knew six of her siblings because most of them were sold before she was one year old. Some of her siblings were sold when they were as young as three years old. When Sojourner Truth was nine years old, she was sold along with her brother Peter the only remaining children of the Baumfrees. They were sold with the “livestock” as part of the estate of the deceased; their parents were abandoned to fend for themselves since they were then elderly and could not work and could not fetch a price on the auction block.


Sold to a family whose language was English, the nine-year-old who could only speak Dutch was severely punished when she could not follow directions. Writing of that period of the enslaved child’s life, Gilbert explains: “She could only talk Dutch and the Nealys could only talk English. Mr. Nealy could understand Dutch, but Isabel and her mistress could neither of them understand the language of the other and this, of itself, was a formidable obstacle in the way of a good understanding between them, and for some time was a fruitful source of dissatisfaction to the mistress, and of punishment and suffering to Isabella.”


One especially cruel and memorable whipping is described in Narrative of Sojourner Truth as related by the adult Sojourner Truth more than 30 years later: “One Sunday morning, in particular, she was told to go to the barn; on going there, she found her master with a bundle of rods, prepared in the embers, and bound together with cords. When he had tied her hands together before her, he gave her the most cruel whipping she was ever tortured with. He whipped her till the flesh was deeply lacerated, and the blood streamed from her wounds and the scars remain to the present day, to testify to the fact.”


After enduring slavery for approximately 30 years, including having her children sold away, Sojourner Truth walked away from her enslaver. She was determined that she would not “run away”, so she simply walked off the property to freedom in 1827, a year before slavery was abolished in New York. Her former owner stole her five-year-old and sold him south, where slavery was in practice and would remain until 1865. Her action to recover her child was unheard of at that time. Sojourner Truth took the matter to court and paid a lawyer who (successfully) argued her case; making her the first African-American woman to win a court case against a White man. Her abused and disfigured child was returned to her months after he had been kidnapped and sold.


The Narrative of Sojourner Truth details the life of this remarkable woman who survived the horrors of slavery and after seizing her freedom when she was 30 years old, dedicated her life to working for the freedom of others. Sojourner Truth was an abolitionist and a human rights activist who was also the first African-American woman to work for women’s rights.


On April 28, 2009, Sojourner Truth became the first African-American woman to be honoured with a bust of her likeness at the U.S. Capitol ( The bust was donated by the National Congress of Black Women, Inc. and was unveiled on April 28, 2009, in Emancipation Hall in the Capitol Visitor Center, where it will be on permanent display as approved by the Joint Committee on the Library.


A fitting tribute to a woman who in spite of the fact that by the time she was 30 years old and escaped the inhumane institution of enslavement during which she had been owned by five White families, persevered and refused to allow anyone to break her spirit. Sojourner Truth is a woman to remember and celebrate during African Liberation Month!

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