Sojourner Truth was born into slavery about 1797 in Ulster County, New York. Known
as Isabella, her parents were James and Betsey, the property of Colonel Johannes
Hardenbergh. As a child she spoke only low Dutch and, like most slaves, never learned
to read or write.
About 1815 Isabella married Thomas, a fellow slave, and bore five children -- Diana (b.
1815), Peter (b. 1821), Elizabeth (b.1825), Sophia (b. 1826) and a fifth child who may
have died in infancy.
Isabella was sold to four more owners, until she finally walked to freedom in 1826,
carrying her infant daughter, Sophia.
She settled in New York City until 1843, when she changed her name to Sojourner
Truth, announcing she would travel the land as an itinerant preacher, telling the truth
and working against injustice.
During the next several years, Truth lived in Northampton, Massachusetts, where she
purchased a home, and in Ohio. She traveled around the east and midwest preaching
for human rights. This illiterate ex-slave was a powerful figure in several national social
movements, speaking forcefully for the abolition of slavery, women’s rights and
suffrage, the rights of freedmen, temperance, prison reform and the termination of
In the course of her travels, she befriended many of the leading reformers and
abolitionists of the day, including Amy Post, Parker Pillsbury, Frances Dana Gage,
Wendell Phillips, William Lloyd Garrison, Laura Haviland, Lucretia Mott, Susan B.
Anthony, and Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Probably her most famous address, known as "Ain't I A Woman," was made at a
Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, on May 28, 1851. Sojourner asserted that
women deserved equal rights with men because they were equal in capability to men.
Truth supported herself by selling portraits, captioned "I sell the Shadow to support the
Substance." She also received income from the sale of her biography, The Narrative of
Sojourner Truth, A Northern Slave, written in 1850 by her friend, Olive Gilbert.
Sojourner first came to Battle Creek, Michigan, in 1856 when she was invited to address
the radical Quaker group, the Friends of Human Progress. The next year she moved to
Michigan, buying a home in the nearby settlement of Harmonia. Ten years later,
Sojourner moved into Battle Creek, converting a small barn on College Street into her
home. She lived there with her daughters, Diana and Elizabeth, until her death.
While she lived in Michigan, Truth continued her national human rights crusade. In the
1860s thousands of freedmen and former slaves fled to Washington, D.C., seeking
safety and jobs. However, the federal government was totally unprepared for this influx.
There was no place for the ex-slaves to live, very little food and no employment.
Sojourner worked at Freedman’s Village and for the Freedman's Bureau trying to
improve their living conditions.
Although Sojourner Truth was not an active participant in the Underground Railroad,
she did assist many blacks who had previously traveled this route to freedom by helping
them find new homes. She was very active in relocating the former slaves to western
states like Kansas. Sojourner lobbied the government to give them free land and to pay
their transportation costs to their new homes. She carried petitions with her, urging
people to sign them.
Truth was not intimidated by convention or authority. During her lifetime she brought,
and won, three lawsuits. This was very unusual for a woman, especially for an illiterate
ex-slave. She retrieved her son, Peter, who had been sold illegally from New York State
into slavery in Alabama. She also won a slander suit in New York City and a personal
injury case after she was injured in a street car incident in Washington. D.C.
Sojourner Truth died at her home on College Street on November 26, 1883. Her funeral
service, reportedly attended by 1,000 people, was held at the Congregational-
Presbyterian Church. She is buried at Oak Hill Cemetery in Battle Creek.
Written by Mary G. Butler for the Sojourner Truth Institute in association with the
Historical Society of Battle Creek. Edited 2018.