Sojourner Truth was born in 1797 as Isabella, a Dutch-speaking slave in rural New York. Separated from her family at age nine, she was sold several times before ending up on the farm of John and Sally Dumont. As was the case for most slaves in the rural North, Isabella lived isolated from other African Americans, and she suffered from physical and sexual abuse at the hands of her masters. Inspired by her conversations with God, which she held alone in the woods, Isabella walked to freedom in 1826. Although tempted to return to Dumont’s farm, she was struck by a vision of Jesus, during which she felt “baptized in the Holy Spirit,” and she gained the strength and confidence to resist her former master. In this experience, Isabella was like countless African Americans who called on the supernatural for the power to survive injustice and oppression.
In 1828, Isabella moved to New York City and soon thereafter became a preacher in the “perfectionist,” or pentecostal tradition. Her faith and preaching brought her into contact with abolitionists and women’s rights crusaders, and Truth became a powerful speaker on both subjects. She traveled extensively as a lecturer, particularly after the publication of The Narrative of Sojourner Truth, which detailed her suffering as a slave. Her speeches were not political, but were based on her unique interpretation-as a woman and a former slave-of the Bible.
With the start of the Civil War, Truth became increasingly political in her work. She agitated for the inclusion of blacks in the Union Army, and, once they were permitted to join, volunteered by bringing them food and clothes. She became increasingly involved in the issue of women’s suffrage, but broke with leaders Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton when Stanton stated that she would not support the black vote if women were not also granted the right. Truth also fought for land to resettle freed slaves, and she saw the 1879 Exodus to Kansas as part of God’s divine plan. Truth’s famous “Ar’n’t I a Woman?” speech, delivered in 1851 at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention, is a perfect example of how, as Nell Painter puts it, “at a time when most Americans thought of slaves as male and women as white, Truth embodied a fact that still bears repeating: Among blacks are women; among the women, there are blacks.”