African-American Landmarks: Sojourner Truth - Monuments To A Monumental Woman

 Part of our African-American Landmarks & Destinations travel series

 By Kimberly Dijkstra

 

Sojourner Truth is an important figure in American history for her work as an abolitionist and women’s rights activist. 

 

Her Life

Born Isabella Baumfree in 1797 in Ulster County, New York, Truth began life enslaved by a Dutch settler. She spoke only Dutch as a child, and when she learned English, she spoke it with a Dutch accent, which distinguished her from others in her circumstances. 

 

Truth was bought and sold several times over, suffering cruelty and brutality for years. As a young woman, she fell in love with an enslaved man from a neighboring farm, but was forbidden to be with him. She later met an enslaved man named Thomas, married him, and had several children. 

 

Having been promised freedom a year before New York officially emancipated slaves and lied to, Truth walked away from her life with her infant daughter, forced to leave behind her other children. She started a new life in New Paltz, New York, learning later that her 5-year-old son Peter had been sold to an owner in Alabama, in defiance of New York State law. 

 

Assisted by the Van Wagenens family, Truth went to court, and in 1828, after months of legal hearings, she was able to bring her son home. This was one of the first times a Black woman went to court against a white man and the first time one won. 

 

During this time, Truth experienced a religious awakening and became a devout Christian. In 1829 she moved to New York City to work as a housekeeper and cultivated an interest in charity for the poor. Truth had another run-in with the legal system when she was accused of stealing from and poisoning her employer. Fortunately, she was acquitted.

 

Truth’s son Peter eventually took a job on a whaling ship. In 1843 he disappeared and was presumed lost at sea. This was a turning point for her. She became a Methodist and took the name Sojourner Truth. She declared, “The Lord gave me ‘Sojourner,’ because I was to travel up an’ down the land, showin’ the people their sins an’ bein’ a sign unto them…and the Lord gave me ‘Truth,’ because I was to declare the truth to the people.”

 

Called by god, she began to to travel and preach about the abolition of slavery, drawing large crowds. In 1844, Truth joined an organization in Massachusetts founded by abolitionists that supported women’s rights, religious tolerance, and pacifism. While living with the organization's members on a compound, Truth met prominent abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and David Ruggles.

 

When the community disbanded in 1846, Truth stayed in Massachusetts and began dictating her memoirs to a friend. In 1850, William Lloyd Garrison published the book, “The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: a Northern Slave.” 

 

The following year, on a lecture tour that brought her to the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, Truth delivered her most famous speech on African-American and women’s rights. Later given the title “Ain’t I a Woman?”, the extemporaneous speech drew from Truth’s experiences as a former enslaved woman. 

 

Truth continued to advocate for civil rights for much of her life through speeches that made an impact on audiences. During the Civil War, she helped recruit African-American men for the Union Army, and in 1864, she met President Abraham Lincoln. In 1870, she met with President Ulysses S. Grant and later became active in his re-election campaign. 

 

Following years of work on the subject, an 1871 speech had Truth telling a packed house that Black people should be given land out West to build homes upon and prosper since they were treated poorly in the South.

 

Truth passed away in her home in Battle Creek, Migican, at age 86. Nearly a thousand people attended her funeral and Frederick Douglass gave a eulogy, stating, “Venerable for age, distinguished for insight into human nature, remarkable for independence and courageous self-assertion, devoted to the welfare of her race, she has been for the last forty years an object of respect and admiration to social reformers everywhere.”

 

Her Legacy

 

There are many monuments dedicated to Sojourner Truth around the country, and a number of churches, schools, and social organizations as well. A 12-foot-tall bronze statue stands in Monument Park in Battle Creek, a life-sized terracotta statue stands at Women’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls, New York, and a bronze statue of Truth as a child was installed in Port Ewen, NY.

 

In 2020, a 7-foot-tall bronze statue was unveiled at the Walkway Over the Hudson Park in Highland, NY, and the same year, a statue honoring key suffragists Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony was unveiled in New York City’s Central Park.

 

Furthermore, on the campus of Thurgood Marshall College of Law in San Diego stands another bronze statue of Truth; a memorial bust was installed in Emancipation Hall at the United States Capitol Visitors Center in Washington DC; and an Ohio Historical Marker has been placed at the site of Truth’s famous “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech.

 

All of these locations are apt places to visit to pay tribute to this historically significant woman, but no place more so than the Sojourner Truth African Heritage Museum in Sacramento, California.

 

Formerly known as the Sojourner Truth Multicultural Art Museum, the museum celebrates the life of its namesake and explores African American history, experiences, and culture through art. 

 

SOJO, as it is called for short, highlights Truth’s quick wit and fearlessness as exemplified by her speeches. It also has on display an account of her interview with President Lincoln and her 1881 address against capital punishment in Michigan. 

 

Truth’s legacy of fighting for abolition, suffrage, and the civil and economic advancement of oppressed people is kept alive by the museum, which pays tribute to its namesake by expanding upon her life’s work and carrying on the ideals and principles she stood for.

 

 


More Landmarks and Destinations

Selma to Montgomery Historic Trail

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial

The Black Cowboy Museum

The Underground Railroad

Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site

Booker T. Washington National Monument

The DuSable Museum of African American History

Sojourner Truth - Monuments To A Monumental Woman

Clarksdale, Mississippi, Birthplace of the Blues

Harriet Tubman National Historical Park

 

 

 

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