Isabella Baumfree was born a slave in New York around 1797. Before she turned ten, her owner sold her. Two years later, she was sold again. Eighteen months later, she was sold yet again.
And then she escaped.
“I did not run off, for I thought that wicked,” she later said, “but I walked off, believing that to be all right.”
On June 1, 1843, Baumfree began calling herself Sojourner Truth and devoted her life to the abolition of slavery.
Truth met other abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass, Wendell Phillips, and William Lloyd Garrison. Garrison ended up publishing Truth’s memoirs.
In 1851, Truth attended the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention and delivered the most famous speech of her career, now known as “Ain’t I a Woman?” The following is a short excerpt from the speech:
That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain't I a woman? 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?
Then they talk about this thing in the head; what's this they call it? [member of audience whispers, "intellect"] That's it, honey. What's that got to do with women's rights or Negroes' rights? If my cup won't hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn't you be mean not to let me have my little half measure full?
Then that little man in black there, he says women can't have as much rights as men, 'cause Christ wasn't a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.
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.
Obliged to you for hearing me, and now old Sojourner ain't got nothing more to say.
Truth helped recruit black soldiers for the Union Army during the American Civil War. By 1864, she was working with an organization to improve conditions for African Americans. Later that year, on October 29, Truth met Abraham Lincoln in the White House.
Truth stayed true to her reform efforts. By 1865, she was fighting to desegregate the streetcars in Washington, D. C. After the war, she tried to secure land grants from the federal government for former slaves and also tried to vote in a presidential election. But she did not simply advocate for African Americans. Truth was also involved in the women’s rights movement, and prison reform.