Biography of Civil Rights Activist Sojourner Truth Part 1

About the American civil rights activist and leader Sojourner Truth, history and biography of the former slave.


SOJOURNER TRUTH (1797?-1883). Civil rights activist.

She was born under the least auspicious circumstances imaginable--black, a slave, a woman. Society placed little value on a female black slave, and her unhappy situation was compounded by cruel poverty and total illiteracy. As if to prove that truth is stranger than fiction, using only her native wit, her innate nobility of character, and her incredible courage, she created an identity for herself that eventually made her one of the great American folk heroes. She was an evangelical abolitionist who also insisted on fighting for the emancipation of women at a time when most activists in both camps wanted to keep the two issues of slavery and women's rights entirely separate.

Her father, Baumfree, was brought by slave ship from the Gold Coast to New Amsterdam. Baumfree was first owned by Colonel Hardenbergh, then by the colonel's son Charles, who had inherited him. Charles Hardenbergh opened an inn, and it was in the muddy cellar of this inn that Baumfree's third wife, Elizabeth to her owners and Mau-Mau-Bett to her fellows slaves, gave birth to a girl they named Isabella. No one took the birth of a slave girl seriously enough to make a record of the date, but the consensus of opinion places the event sometime around 1797.

In 1806 Isabella was sold at auction to John Nealy of Ulster County, New York, for the paltry price of $100 and, according to rumor, a few sheep. She was then sold to one Martin Scriver, who in turn sold her to John Dumont, for whom she worked until 1826. According to a law passed in New York in 1817, Isabella would have been granted her freedom on July 4, 1827, but Dumont had promised to grant her her freedom a year earlier. When Dumont failed to honor his pledge, Isabella took her infant daughter--the only one of her five children not sold away from her--and, in response to a vision, simply walked off in quest of freedom. She was taken in by Mr. and Mrs. Isaac Van Wagener, who first bought her from Dumont and then granted her her freedom. As a free woman, she adopted the name Isabella Van Wagener.

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