Sojourner Truth

Sojourner Truth (c.1797-1883) was a leading activist, speaker and teacher at the forefront of the African-American struggle for civil rights. Resolutely non-sectarian, she acted as a bridge between issues such as women’s rights, abolition, and religious freedom.

Pedagogical Unit

Forms of emancipation

Isabella Bomefree, slave: the early years

The grand-daughter of Africans who had survived the Middle Passage, Isabella Bomefree, who would later become Sojourner Truth, was born into slavery in a Dutch-speaking community in Ulster County, New York State, around 1797. She spent the first three decades of her life in slavery; like many (though by no means all) slaves of her generation, she never learned to read or write. Her experiences during bondage, which included brutal beatings (her back forever carried the scars), separation from her parents and siblings (her aged father, alone and no longer able to take care of himself, froze to death), and (probable) sexual abuse, informed her subsequent denunciations of slavery, and struggles for women’s rights.

She spent the first three decades of her life in slavery; like many (though by no means all) slaves of her generation, she never learned to read or write. Her experiences during bondage, which included brutal beatings (her back forever carried the scars), separation from her parents and siblings (her aged father, alone and no longer able to take care of himself, froze to death), and (probable) sexual abuse, informed her subsequent denunciations of slavery, and struggles for women’s rights.

House of Johannes Hardenburgh, first owner of Isabella Bomefree. Unknown photographer, published in 1909.

The first steps to freedom

New York’s Gradual Manumission Act of March 31, 1817, provided that slaves born before July 4, 1799, such as Isabella, would gain their freedom on July 4, 1827. Those born after this date, such as the four children born to Isabella, would remain slaves until the age of twenty-five, for women, or twenty-eight, for men. Isabella was promised freedom one year before the act was due to come into effect, only to see this promise retracted after she lost an index finger during field labour. Rather than accept this injustice passively, however, she defiantly took her own freedom, escaping with her youngest child on a Fall morning, in the year 1826. This act heralded her first steps towards freedom and independence.

Rather than accept this injustice passively, however, she defiantly took her own freedom, escaping with her youngest child on a Fall morning, in the year 1826. This act heralded her first steps towards freedom and independence.

A Ride for Liberty: The Fugitive Slaves. Painting by Eastman Johnson, 1862, British Museum.

Legal activism

Although the New York Gradual Manumission Act made it illegal to remove slaves from the state, it contained no provisions for its effective enforcement beyond the state’s borders.

Shortly after her emancipation, Isabella van Wagenen learned that her son, Peter, had been sold and illegally carried out of New York, to Alabama. An outraged Isabella tirelessly traveled the surrounding towns to spread the news of her son’s illegal removal. With the help of pro-emancipation Quakers, and the legal advocate Herman M. Romeyn, she successfully brought suit against those responsible, and won Peter’s freedom.

Stamp dedicated to Sojourner Truth in 1986, issued by the U.S. Postal Service.