Isabella Baumfree was born in New York around the year 1797, one of 10 or 12 children born to enslaved parents. When she was 9 years old, she was sold to another owner who beat her every day. She was sold twice more, including one owner who raped her repeatedly. She later married Thomas, an older enslaved man, and had five children.
In 1799, the State of New York began the process of abolishing slavery, but it would take 28 years to be fully implemented. Isabella and her infant daughter escaped to freedom in 1826, but her other children were still held in bondage. She later found out that one of her sons was sold to a person in Alabama where emancipation did not apply. She sued to have her son returned. She became one of the first black women to ever be successful in the courts.
After emancipation, Isabella worked for a Christian evangelist who persuaded her to become a Christian. She decided to change her name to Sojourner Truth because she believed that her journey was to tell the truth.
Sojourner became a popular evangelist, drawing large crowds. Sojourner became involved in the abolition movement and the fight for women’s rights. It was at this time that she met some of the most notable abolition leaders, including Frederick Douglas.
In 1851, Sojourner spoke before the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention. The speech was extemporaneous but became historic for the line: “Ain’t I a woman.” She was equating the struggles for freedom from slavery with the struggle for equality for all women, including black women.
For the rest of her life, Sojourner became noted for the fiery speeches she gave for equal rights. She was one of the nation’s first and strongest advocates for social justice, including voting rights and property rights. Many of these rights have still not been fully achieved 150 years later.
In 2009, a bust of Sojourner Truth was installed in the US Capitol Visitor Center, making her the first black woman to be honored with a statue in the US Capitol. The 1997 Mars Pathfinder rover was named Sojourner in her honor.
It’s remarkable how a woman with no formal education and no resources could rise to become a prominent spokesperson for basic human rights. It often takes one person with steadfast persistence and passion to become the voice for others. Being a voice against oppression requires courage, especially when others are not open to the message.
Just imagine how we might instill beliefs in human equality so that we might be advocates even for those most excluded from equal participation in our society. For those who have been long oppressed, just imagine how we might give them a voice that’s equal to those of the most privileged of today. Just imagine how long it will take for our society to accept that all people “are created equal.”
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“If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down, these women together ought to be able to turn it right again.” – Sojourner Truth
This is part of our “Just Imagine” series of occasional posts, inviting you to join us in imagining positive possibilities for a citizen-centered democracy.