The Common Good
September-October 2001

Slave Ways No More

by Rose Marie Berger | September-October 2001

How Isabella Baumfree became Sojourner Truth.

When Isabella Baumfree was born into a Dutch-speaking family in upstate New York in 1797, 20 percent of the population in the 13 colonies was of African descent. Twelve percent was held in captivity as slaves-700,000 people. When she was 11, her family was sold for the first time. Slavery was not milder in the North, just different. Since the land holdings were small, fewer slaves were needed, but they were sold more often. Isabella's family was broken up. She was kept in unspeakable conditions. As her hatred toward her white masters grew, she asked God to help her escape. In a spiritual vision God gave her an escape plan. She walked away from slavery, left her slave ways on the cellar floor, and stepped into freedom. Her new name marked her liberation.

Sojourner Truth started a street preaching ministry in New York City. She gave firsthand accounts of slavery and agitated for abolition. Her work led her to experimental utopian communities where she met abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and Olive Gilbert. In 1850, Truth dictated her memoirs to Olive Gilbert, who published them under the title The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave. Gilbert partially censored the work: Some of the sexual events that were typical episodes in a slave woman's life were "too delicate" for the expected readership.

Truth became a staunch supporter of women's rights when she learned that the World Anti-Slavery Convention refused to admit women delegates. In 1851, at the women's rights convention in Akron, Ohio, Sojourner Truth convicted the crowd with her famous question. Sojourner Truth died in Battle Creek, Michigan, on November 26, 1883, at 3 a.m. At the time of her death she said, "I'm not gonna die. I'm going home like a shooting star."

Rose Marie Berger is an assistant editor of Sojourners.

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