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This is part of an ongoing Washington Informer series about the Women’s Suffrage Movement and an initiative that includes Informer Publisher Denise Rolark Barnes that will use the lens of history, the fabric of art and culture and the venue of the public square to shine a light into dark places, equipping all with a compass to chart the way forward. The initiative lives in the institutional home of the Washington Informer Charities.
At the 1851 Women’s Rights Convention held in Akron, Ohio, Sojourner Truth delivered what is now recognized as one of the most famous abolitionist and women’s rights speeches in American history, “Ain’t I a Woman?”:
“Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have plowed 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 the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most 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?”
Sojourner Truth would continue to speak out for the rights of African Americans and women during and after the Civil War.
Born an enslaved person near Kingston, New York in approximately 1797, Sojourner Truth’s given name was Isabella Baumfree.
She labored for four masters and in 1826 took her freedom from John Dumont, her last owner.
Soon after, Truth moved to New York, where she worked as a household helper, and then joined a millennial spiritual community, “The Kingdom,” according to the Sojourner Truth Memorial Committee.
When the group disbanded in scandal in 1835, she went to court and proved libel, thus preserving her reputation. When she left New York, she changed her name to Sojourner Truth and eventually made her way to Florence, Massachusetts.
In 1843, Truth joined the Northampton Association of Education and Industry, a utopian community dedicated to equality and justice.
While the Northampton Association was a relatively short-lived experiment as a formal community, its existence gave testimony to that special human spirit which seeks to increase justice and improve society, to promote – as its founders wrote – “advancement in truth and goodness,” according to the committee.
The National Women’s History Museum explains that, as an itinerant preacher, Truth would eventually meet abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass.
Garrison’s anti-slavery organization encouraged Truth to give speeches about the evils of slavery. She never learned to read or write, according to researchers at the National Women’s History Museum.
In 1850, she dictated what would become her autobiography – The Narrative of Sojourner Truth – to Olive Gilbert, who assisted in its publication.
Truth survived on sales of the book, which also brought her national recognition. She met women’s rights activists, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, as well as temperance advocates – both causes she quickly championed.
In 1851, Truth began a lecture tour that included a women’s rights conference in Akron, Ohio, where she delivered her famous “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech, challenging prevailing notions of racial and gender inferiority and inequality by reminding listeners of her combined strength (Truth was nearly six feet tall) and gender status.
“If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back , and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them,” Truth uttered during her famous speech.
She concluded: “Obliged to you for hearing me, and now old Sojourner ain’t got nothing more to say.”
Truth died in 1883 in Battle Creek, Michigan.