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People & Ideas: Sojourner Truth

Sojourner Truth

Source: Library of Congress

Born into slavery in Ulster County, N.Y., in 1796, Sojourner Truth's experiences as a slave informed her later conversion to Methodism and her staunch commitment to abolition, women's rights and temperance. Sold several times during her early life, Truth, born with the name Isabella Baumfree, suffered under cruel masters. She recalled: "I had a severe, hard master, and I was tied up in the barn and whipped. Oh! Till the blood run down the floor."

But New York state gradually eliminated slavery, and in 1826 Truth was freed. She settled in New York City with her daughter, Sophia, where she experienced a powerful, divine vision. During this conversion, Truth recognized that she -- and all other blacks and women -- deserved equal rights under the law. "We had been taught that we was a species of monkey, baboon or 'rang-o-tang, and we believed it," she recalled, but "some years ago there appeared to me a form. ... Then I learned that I was a human being." After this experience, Baumfree changed her name to Sojourner Truth and began what would be her life-defining work. Truth became a Methodist itinerant preacher, traveling the country and sharing her interpretation of the Scripture with its powerful message of reform and equality.

In 1851, Truth delivered her now-famous "Ain't I a Woman?" speech before the Women's Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio: "I can't read, but I can hear. I have heard the Bible and have learned that Eve caused man to sin. Well, if woman upset the world, do give her a chance to set it right side up again." Her remarks, wedding social reform with Methodist evangelism, won her a great following and impressed many of the delegates at the convention. She began corresponding with other prominent social reformers like William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony.

In addition to advocating for women's rights, Truth also campaigned for abolition. She postulated that all humans are equal in God's eyes and therefore should be equal on earth: "Does not God love colored children as well as white children? And did not the same Savior die to save the one as well as the other? If so, white children must know that if they go to Heaven, they must go there without their prejudice against color, for in Heaven black and white are one in the love of Jesus." For Truth, salvation was only available to those who had embraced abolition and equality.

Truth died in 1883. Before her death, she spoke about the existence of heaven and hell. "As I got older I found out that there wasn't no such thing as hell," she said. "And that the narrow stairs only showed the narrowness of the mind that conceived the picture. I have found out and know that God's brightness and goodness and glory is hot enough to scorch all the sinners in the world."

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Published October 11, 2010

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