“What is that religion that sanctions, even by its silence, all that is embraced in the ‘Peculiar Institution?’ If there can be anything more diametrically opposed to the religion of Jesus, than the working of this soul-killing system- which is as truly sanctioned by the religion of America as are her ministers and churches- we wish to be shown where it can be found.”
Sojourner Truth was born Isabella Baumfree in 1797 in Ulster County, New York. Her family called her “Belle,” and she spoke only Dutch. At age nine she was sold to the enslaver John Neely for $100, along with some sheep. Neely was a particularly horrible enslaver who beat his captives daily, including the young Truth. She was sold several more times and at age 13 ended up in West Park, New York with the Dumont family. When she was 18, she fell in love with an enslaved man named Robert from a nearby farm. Enslaved people could not legally marry, but on the same farm they were usually encouraged to “marry” and create large families. The problem was Robert did not live on the same farm, and his owner forbade the relationship because he would not own the children. Robert would sneak over to see Truth, and once his owner caught him and beat him so savagely Dumont intervened to stop him. Truth never saw Robert again. Dumont forced Truth to marry an enslaved man on his farm named Thomas. She eventually had five children: James, who died as an infant; Diana, Dumont’s child by rape; and then Peter, Elizabeth, and Sophia with her husband Thomas. Dumont promised Truth he would grant her freedom on July 4, 1826 if she would “do well and be faithful,” but when the day came he changed his mind. Truth was furious and took her infant daughter Sophia and walked, not ran, off the plantation. She had to leave her other children behind. She made her way to New Paltz, New York and the home of the Van Wagenen family. Dumont came looking for her, and the Van Wagenens offered to buy her services for $20 until the sure to pass New York Anti-Slavery Law was voted on in a few months. Dumont agreed, took the money and left. After the law officially passed in 1827, Dumont illegally sold Truth’s five-year-old son Peter to a buyer in Alabama. With the help of the Van Wagenens, Truth filed a lawsuit to get Peter back. She succeeded, and became the first Black woman to ever sue a white man in an American court and win.
In 1829 she went to work for a preacher named Elijah Pierson, then three years later worked for another preacher named Robert Matthews, who called himself the Prophet Mattias. Pierson died soon after and for some reason Truth and Matthews were both accused of stealing from and poisoning him. They were acquitted, but Matthews was convicted of other crimes, sent to jail, and eventually moved west. She was inspired by the faith of those around her, and in 1843 she became a Methodist and changed her name to Soujourner Truth. She joined several major abolitionist and suffragette groups, dictated a memoir, and went on lecture tours throughout the county. On one of these tours, in Akron, Ohio, she gave her speech, “Ain’t I a Woman?” At six feet tall, Truth received many stupid questions about whether she was a woman or not, which supposedly prompted this speech. Several different versions of this speech were published, but only the one printed by Frances Gage 12 years after she gave it used the phrase “Ain’t I a Woman.” That version also employed a Southern dialect not likely to be used by Truth, who was born and raised in New York, and spoke of her 13 children when she only ever claimed 5. Regardless, this is the version that was accepted as the one she gave.
Truth gave many more speeches over the next ten years. In 1858, someone interrupted her during a speech accusing her of being a man and she opened her shirt to reveal her breasts. She is quoted as saying, “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.”