By Dr. Rick Chromey
The Smithsonian Magazine named her among America’s “Most Significant” individuals.”1 She’s been commemorated on towers, highways, stamps, ships, monuments, and currency. A space rover and asteroid were named for her. Gloria Steinem initially considered branding Ms. Magazine in her honor. She was inducted into the Woman’s Hall of Fame (1981).
She might be America’s greatest Black American. Her influence inspired everyone from Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and George Washington Carver to Martin Luther King, Jr., Oprah Winfrey and Michelle Obama. She was the first black woman to receive a statue in the U.S. Capitol.
And yet her name and legacy are largely unknown.
Her real name was Isabella Baumfree or “Belle.” She was born a slave sometime in 1797. At age nine, she was sold to another master for $100 and some sheep. Her new master proved cruel. Belle was beaten daily with rods. Two years later she was sold again. And then again. Her third master raped her repeatedly and fathered a child. Belle spent her adolescent years in shame, guilt, anxiety and fear.
In 1815, Belle fell in love with another slave, but the relationship was doomed. His master forbade the love affair. One day he caught them together and savagely beat her boyfriend nearly to death (thankfully, Belle’s master intervened). Nevertheless, she never saw him again and he died shortly thereafter. It was a tragedy that haunted Belle her entire life.
Eventually she married another slave and bore him four children, but Belle remained unfulfilled and increasingly angry. Even though New York State initially abolished slavery in 1799, it took decades for the practice to end on July 4, 1827. But Belle had had enough.
In 1826 she escaped with her daughter Sophia. “I did not run off,” Belle recounted, “for I thought that wicked, but I walked off, believing that to be all right.” In her escape, she met a devout Christian couple named Isaac and Maria Van Wagenen who boarded Belle and Sophia. In their care, Belle had a transformative religious experience. It’s also when she learned her son was illegally sold into Southern slavery. With the Van Wagenens’ assistance, she won the court case to get him back. It was the first time a black woman won a legal battle against a white man.
Belle’s transformative faith experience anointed her to preach. So she hit the road, speaking to anyone who’d listen. Her skill as an orator soon caught the attention of evangelists Elijah Pierson and Robert Matthews. Belle worked for both preachers, improving her communication skills. Then Pierson suddenly died. And Matthews and Belle were accused of poisoning him. It wasn’t true. Belle was eventually acquitted of murder, but she was now in her thirties. And all she knew was the road and poverty. Eventually she migrated to New York City and spent most of her forties exhausting options.
By 1843, Belle was broke. She owned nothing. And then, on Pentecost Sunday no less, everything suddenly again changed for her.
That’s when, in another fiery spiritual moment, Belle rediscovered her Calling to preach the Word no matter what. This Calling drove her to wander with her belongings in a pillowcase, living off the kindness of New England strangers. And then she met abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass. Garrison published the anti-slavery newspaper The Liberator and he liked Belle’s story. In 1850, Garrison released her autobiography, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave.2 The book was an instant success.
Belle was 53 years old. And suddenly she was “rock star” famous.
But her name was no longer Isabella. As her book announced, her new name was “Sojourner Truth.” It was the moniker a Divine Voice told her to use seven years earlier on that Pentecost Sunday. That’s the day Sojourner forever left her bondage and shed her past…to wander and preach the Truth of Jesus.
Sojourner was “born again” into a new mission that included audacious new messages.
She particularly spoke against slavery and for women’s suffrage. Her speeches sparked a flame that exploded into a five alarm blaze. In 1851 Sojourner Truth was invited to speak for a convention in Ohio. That’s when she delivered her famous women’s rights speech “Ain’t I a Woman?” As she drew on her story as a woman slave, the audience reportedly “[beamed] with joyous gladness.” It’s still considered one of America’s most famous speeches.
In her elder years, Sojourner Truth tirelessly gave thousands of messages on abolition, women’s suffrage, prison reform, alcohol temperance, and property rights. She was as popular as Frederick Douglass on the speaking circuit, with both black and white audiences. During the Civil War, Sojourner recruited black Union soldiers, consulted for President Lincoln and assisted newly freed slaves. She fought for former slaves to be awarded land in the West. She wrote war songs. As a Republican she campaigned for Ulysses S. Grant.
Sojourner Truth died on November 26, 1883.
She had done more for her people, and for her country, in her final three decades than most people do in a lifetime. Frederick Douglass eulogized: “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.” 3
Sojourner Truth accomplished much but what’s often missed by contemporary historians is how she never lost the fire for Jesus. Her devout Christian faith guided her life and mission. And she always preached the gospel to anyone who’d listen.
No matter the topic or audience, Sojourner began every message with ten words: “Children, I talk to God and God talks to me.”
Indeed, Sojourner Truth still talks today…for those with ears to hear.
Dr. Rick Chromey is an author, historian and theologian who speaks and writes on matters of religion, culture, history, technology and leadership. He’s the founder and president of MANNA! Educational Services International. Rick and his wife Linda live in Star, ID. www.mannasolutions.org.
1“Meet the 100 Most Significant Americans of All Time” by T.A. Frail; Smithsonian Magazine (November 17, 2014)
2The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave (Boston: 1850). Available for download: https://www.google.com/books/edition/Narrative_of_Sojourner_Truth/UW_hAAAAMAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=The+Narrative+of+Sojourner+Truth:+A+Northern+Slave&printsec=frontcover
3 Dunn, John F. (January 19, 1986). “Stamps; Human Rights Activist Honored.” The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331.