A slave finds freedom
The Biography of Sojourner Truth – the Woman Behind the Name
Many years ago, as a young lad, I read the biography of Sojourner Truth in Jouney Toward Freedom written by Jacqueline Bernard. Immediately, I was taken by her story of struggle and the victory she helped slaves everywhere to win.
Her story is well-told by many different biographies and historical sources, but unfortunately the biography of Sojourner Truth is not more well known.
Her Childhood and Slavery:
Sojourner Truth was born as Isabella Baumfree in 1797 to a dutch-speaking plantation owner. She lived with her family until she was sold at the age of 9. Her mother, Ma-Ma Betts gave Sojourner Truth her first introduction to God through the old Negro spirituals she sang while she worked. When her first owner Colonel Hardenbergh, died, Ma-Ma Betts was freed and Sojouner Truth went to work for John Neely.
John Neely and his wife were harsh masters that didn't take well to Sojourner Truth's lack of English. In the biography of Sojourner Truth this is an unhappy time, but she worked hard to master English.
The biography of Sojourner Truth written by Ms. Benard mentions that Sojourner Truth's father helped her find a new master, Martin Schryver. He was a fisherman, tavern owner and farmer who bought her from the Neelys.
Sojourner Truth spent a significant amount of time working for the Schryver's, and grew into her young womanhood working for them. She was then bought from them by John J. Dumont in 1810. Over six feet tall, she had become a hardworker and biography of Sojourner Truth recalls her as quickly becoming Dumont's favorite slave.
During her year's as Dumont's slave she met a slave named Robert from a nearby plantation. They hid their romance for several months before Robert's master found out the lad and beat him within an inch of his life. He wanted his slave to raise children for his own plantation.
In 1817, at twenty years of age, Sojourner Truth was then given to an older slave name Thomas on the Dumont plantation. In the biography of Sojourner Truth, she had four children with Thomas
In 1799, two years after Sojourner Truth was born as Isabelle Baumfree, legislation was passed that was to free all slaves by July 4, 1827. In fact, had she been born in 1799, that same legislation would have dictated her freedom by the age of 25. In 1825, her master promised her freedom a year early, if she worked extra hard for that year.
And so she did. Ignoring her children's clamor for their mother, she worked ceaselessly. Unfortunately as the biography of Sojourner Truth recounts, she suffered a hand injury which her master claimed interfered too much with her work. He refused her freedom.
As would be expected, Sojourner was bitterly disappointed. After all of this time of waiting, Sojourner walked out on foot. Finding a house run by Quakers to help assist runaway slaves, she took refuge there. Later that day her master Dumont arrived, and after a short discourse, her host, Isaac Van Wagenen purchased her from Dumont for 25 dollars.
For the first time in the biography of Sojourner Truth, she was a free woman.
In the biography of Sojourner Truth it recounts that after several months of freedom, Sojourner Truth found the loneliness of being a free-woman with no one to speak with too overpowering. In an unexpected change of mind, she prepared to return to her old master, Dumont. As she was going with him, she suddenly felt as if her way was blocked and she suffered a dizzy spell. She returned to her room at the Van Wagenen's.
It is at this point that she recalls having some type of spiritual conversion. In the moments after she returned to her room, she seems to have gone through some soul searching, and reached a new level of understanding in her faith which was to guide her through the rest of her life.
As the state-wide law came into effect allowing for the freedom of slaves, she went to the master of her son, Peter. Upon hearing that her son had been leased to a plantation owner in the south, against state law, she went before the Grand Jury. Unable to read or write and relying on the help of her Quaker friends, she obtained a warrant, pressuring her son's owner to retrieve her son, which he did.
Upon her son's return she was still denied him. Returning to court and pressuring multiple lawyers, she finally regained control of her son after several months of wrangling. Scarred and emotionally abused, her son at first denied he knew her. Not one to back down, Sojourner Truth pressed on and won his freedom.
In the biography of Sojourner Truth, it is very clear that God and Jesus were both very real to Sojourner's daily life. She prayed often, and felt that she had seen Jesus on more than one occasion in answer to prayers. With her new freedom, she tried attending church for the first time. Through connections at the church, she found passage and work in New York around 1829.
There, she became part of a communal group called “The Kingdom”. One of the leaders, Elijah Pierson, died in 1834 during her short time there, and she was accused by journalists of having poisoned him. While she was acquitted by the courts, one journalist even went so far as to write a sensational book maligning her as the murderess.
Anxious to clear her name, Sojourner Truth accepted the help of the young journalist Gilbert Vale. He traveled the state of New York, collecting references from Sojourner's former masters. All of them gave glowing reviews, and Vale combined her story into a book about “The Kingdom” titled Fanaticism, Its Source and Influence. Using this evidence, she sued the first journalist and one a case for $125.
Leaving New York
Around 1843 Isabelle Baumfree officially adopted the name “Sojourner Truth”. She felt called by God to move East. One morning, the biography of Sojourner Truth recounts how she started walking east. Upon stopping at a Quaker's house for breakfast, she gave her name as “Sojourner”. As she continued walking, she continued praying until the last name of “Truth” came to her. She adopted it as her new name. Isabelle Baumfree was no more.
A new Life was opening.
Continue reading with
The Biography of Sojourner Truth, Part 2