I live and work in Ulster County, New York. Every day that I walk onto the campus where I teach at SUNY New Paltz, I pass the library which is named for Sojourner Truth, and am reminded that though we often think of slavery as a southern phenomenon, it was a northern affair as well. I remember that a key figure in the struggle for women’s and black rights—still as yet unresolved in this nation—was born enslaved in 1797 with the name Isabella ("Bell") Baumfree.
Her parents, James and Elizabeth Baumfree, were slaves on an estate in Ulster County, New York, north of New York City. She was one of 13 children and grew up speaking Dutch. She was first sold at auction around the age of 9.
Before she was 30 Isabella had had five owners. In 1826, a year before the state of New York completed its gradual emancipation of slaves, her owner, Dumont, reneged on a promise to free her as a reward for hard work. Infuriated, she worked until she believed that she had satisfied her obligation to him and then walked away with her infant daughter. A couple named Van Wenger took them in and paid her owner $20 as compensation for her services until emancipation took effect in 1827.
On June 1, 1843, Isabella changed her name to Sojourner Truth. Details of Isabella’s enslavement and travails can be read in The Narrative of Sojourner Truth, dictated by Truth to Olive Gilbert and published in 1850.
Today is the anniversary of an address delivered by Sojourner Truth at the Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, on May 29, 1851 which is often referred to as her “Ain’t I a Woman” speech. How it has been relayed over time has become a subject of debate among historians.
I started my own journey seeking more insight into Truth, with the work of one of my favorite historians, Nell Irvin Painter, whose text, Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol ...
...goes beyond the myths, words, and photographs to uncover the life of a complex woman who was born into slavery and died a legend. Inspired by religion, Truth transformed herself from a domestic servant named Isabella into an itinerant pentecostal preacher; her words of empowerment have inspired black women and poor people the world over to this day. As an abolitionist and a feminist, Truth defied the notion that slaves were male and women were white, expounding a fact that still bears repeating: among blacks there are women; among women, there are blacks.
While there are many biographies of Truth, Painter’s struck a chord with me.
She points to Sojourner’s famous speech, often reported in black southern dialect, as a historical impossibility.
In New York State, by contrast, there were large numbers of blacks only in New York City. On the farms of rural New York, where slaves like Isabella lived and worked, one or two Africans commonly lived with a Dutch family and remained too isolated and scattered to forge any but the most tentative separate culture. Surrounded by Dutch speakers, rural black New Yorkers grew up speaking the language of their community. A good 16 or so percent, perhaps more, of eighteenth-century black New Yorkers, like Isabella and her family, spoke Dutch as their first language.
Such sound from black folk astonished those who were not from New York. A southern slave, accompanying his owner on a trip to New York, grew frustrated trying to extract directions from an Afro-Dutch woman. To his query about the way to New York, she answered: "Yaw, mynheer," pointing toward the town, "cat is Yarikee." Isabella as a young woman would have spoken in just this way. Over her lifetime she learned to speak English fluently, but she lost neither the accent nor the earthy imagery of the Dutch language that made her English so remarkable.
It is not possible to know exactly how Sojourner Truth spoke, for no one from her generation and cultural background was recorded. Isabella was the slave of the Dumont family from about twelve until about thirty, and many years later the daughter, Gertrude Dumont, protested that Truth's speech was nothing like the mock-southern dialect that careless reporters used. Rather, it was "very similar to that of the unlettered white people of [New York in] her time." As an older woman, Truth took pride in speaking correct English and objected to accounts of her speeches in heavy southern dialect. This seemed to her to take "unfair advantage" of her race.
The first paper to report her speech in Akron was the anti-slavery Bugle:
One of the most unique and interesting speeches of the convention was made by Sojourner’s Truth, an emancipated slave. It is impossible to transfer it to paper, or convey any adequate idea of the effect it produced upon the audience. Those only can appreciate it who saw her powerful form, her whole-souled, earnest gesture, and listened to her strong and truthful tones. She came forward to the platform and addressing the President said with great simplicity:
May I say a few words? Receiving an affirmative answer, she proceeded; I want to say a few words about this matter. I am a woman’s rights [sic]. I have as much muscle as any man, and can do as much work as any man. I have plowed and reaped and husked and chopped and mowed, and can any man do more than that? I have heard much about the sexes being equal; I can carry as much as any man, and can eat as much too, if I can get it. I am strong as any man that is now.
However this was the speech published as “remembered” by Frances Dana Barker Gage 12 years later:
"Wall, chilern, whar dar is so much racket dar must be somethin' out o' kilter. I tink dat 'twixt de niggers of de Souf and de womin at de Norf, all talkin' 'bout rights, de white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what's all dis here talkin' 'bout?"
Dat man ober dar say dat womin needs to be helped into carriages, and lifted ober ditches, and to hab de best place everywhar. Nobody eber helps me into carriages, or ober mud-puddles, or gibs me any best place!" And raising herself to her full height, and her voice to a pitch like rolling thunder, she asked. 'And ain't I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! (and she bared her right arm to the shoulder, showing her tremendous muscular power). I have ploughed, and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain't I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear de lash as well! And ain't I a woman? I have borne thirteen chilern, and seen 'em mos' all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain't I a woman?"
I side with historians who reject the southern dialect rendition.
You can listen to Painter on Sojourner Truth and her book in a discussion with Brian Lamb on C-SPAN.
Painter also speaks to the erasure of our perception of Northern slavery. This is a subject that I’ve written about here before, in “Enslaved African ancestors and their Wall Street legacy,” which includes the African Burial Ground in New York City, and in “Sugar, slavery and subtlety,” which explores northern wealth built on sugarcane. My own research into my Norwegian and Dutch Bradt (Bratt) and Van Slyke ancestors in upstate New York led me to discover—much to my surprise—my own slave-holding kin.
The effacement of the memory of northern slavery has skewed American regional identities by exonerating white northerners and blaming white southerners. This erasure complicates the task of situating Isabella's life history, for by the mid-nineteenth century, when Sojourner Truth was a familiar presence in antislavery circles, New York belonged to the metaphorical land of liberty. With southern slavery as the symbol of American slavery, Truth's early life automatically migrated into a vague, composite antebellum South, a Southern Nowhere that for all its lack of specificity is definitely south of the Mason-Dixon line...
Slavery was an important part of northern life before 1800, however latter-day historical symbolism may have erased its stigma from the North. When Isabella was born, only Charleston among American cities had a larger black population than New York, and New York City's 5,865 blacks (including five slaves owned by Founding Father John Jay) accounted for about 10 percent of the total population. Almost 1,000 of the 6,281 black people in Connecticut and 12,422 of the 16,824 black people in New Jersey were still enslaved; black people were scattered throughout the North, and former slaves were to be found even in Massachusetts.
As a feminist with an intersectional bent, Sojourner Truth is not simply a symbol for me. She speaks to the inclusion of black women’s voices in the herstories of our movement. Too often the role of black women in the fight for suffrage has been pushed to the historical margins. That is beginning to change due to the efforts of many women—historians, activists, and politicians.
In 2009 a bust of Sojourner Truth created by black Canadian sculptor Artis Lane was installed at the U.S. Capitol.
The idea began with the late C. DeLores Tucker, former chair of the National Congress of Black Women, a nonprofit advocacy organization devoted to advancing the causes of African American women. Tucker originally wanted to add Truth's likeness to the eight-ton "Portrait Monument" statues of the heroines of the suffrage movement: Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
That effort failed, but a revised plan for Truth to have a stand-alone bust was approved by Congress in 2006. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) and then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) were key sponsors. The bill was signed into law by President George W. Bush. The resulting bust -- featuring Truth with her trademark bonnet and a hint of a smile -- was created by California-based sculptor Artis Lane.
The installation ceremony was joyous.
Today, Speaker Pelosi and Members of Congress were joined by First Lady Michelle Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to unveil a bust by sculptor Artis Lane of Sojourner Truth. The bust is the first sculpture to honor an African American woman in the US Capitol and was donated by the National Congress of Black Women.
As we remember Sojourner Truth today, 165 years after her speech, let us reflect on her strength and courage. Let us not forget how far we have come, and how far we still need to go.