"At a time when most Americans thought of slaves as male and women as white, Truth embodied a fact that still bears repeating: Among the blacks are women; among the women, there are blacks." -Historian Nell Irvin Painter
Colonel Johannis Hardenbergh owned six slaves on his estate (pictured, c.1933). At the time of Truth's birth, her parents James and Elizabeth were required to work on Hardenbergh's estate in exchange for a small cottage and farmland to cultivate crops. Shortly after her birth, Hardenbergh died and his son Charles inherited the estate. Charles removed Truth's parents from their cottage and kept them in the dark cellar of the main house with the rest of his slaves.
As the youngest of at least ten children, Truth's early life was marked with swift transition. Many of her siblings were "kidnapped" for sale, and Truth was sold for the first time at nine years old. She was sold twice within a two-year period before she was sold to her final master, John Dumont.
While enslaved by her last master John Dumont, Truth fell in love with an enslaved man named Robert from a neighboring farm. His masters, the Catlins, did not want Robert to have children that they could not benefit from and forbade the relationship. In her autobiography, Truth recalls Robert sneaking to Dumont's farm to visit her when she was ill. The Catlins found him and they "fell upon him like Tigers," tying his hands and severely beating him. After this, a somber Robert married a woman from the Catlin farm and Truth married Thomas from the Dumont farm. Truth had five children.
(Womanist scholar Alice Walker delivering a rendering of Truth's alleged words)
In Frances Dana Gage's report, Truth is said to have fiercely condemned gender inequality by detailing her strength, ability to work, and the loss of her thirteen children to slavery. Gage's portrayal documents Truth in 'slave dialect' and evokes imagery of the 'Mammy' stereotype of enslaved women. However, this inaccurate version has often been accepted as historical fact.
In 2017, Leslie Podell published "The Sojourner Truth Project," allowing users to compare the versions of the speech. The project also includes readings of Truth's speech by Afro-Dutch women in an attempt to capture what her authentic Afro-Dutch accent could have sounded like. In this more accurate address, Truth expressed similar sentiments of equality, but promoted the intellect of women. She did not state her ability to endure whippings or mention her five children. Note, Gage falsely emphasized Truth's "thirteen children."
Truth's grandson, James Caldwell, also actively supported the Union. In April of 1863, Caldwell volunteered for the Massachusetts 54th, the first black regiment of Massachusetts. In this portrait, Truth is holding a photo of her grandson.
Sojourner Truth died of old age in Battle Creek, Michigan on November 26, 1883. Although Truth and her family believed she was one hundred and five years old, she was only about eighty-six. Since her death, Truth's likeness can be found on paintings, statues, and within the pages of history textbooks. Most recently, the US Treasury announced that Truth will be featured on the new ten dollar bill along with other suffragists. The design for the new bill will be unveiled in 2020 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote.
Exhibit curated and written by Kerri Lee Alexander, NWHM Fellow
Ham, Debra Newman. "The African American Odyssey: A Quest for Full Citizenship The Civil War." Library of Congress Exhibitions. February 09, 1998. http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/african-american-odyssey/civil-war.html#obj17.
Hull, Gloria T., Patricia Bell-Scott, and Barbara Smith. All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, but Some of Us Are Brave: Black Womens Studies. New York City: Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 2015.
Lew, Jacob J. "Treasury Secretary Lew Announces Front of New $20 to Feature Harriet Tubman, Lays Out Plans for New $20, $10 and $5." U.S. Department of the Treasury. April 20, 2016. https://www.treasury.gov/press-center/press-releases/Pages/jl0436.aspx.
Library of Congress. "Today in History - November 26." Accessed January 04, 2019. https://www.loc.gov/item/today-in-history/november-26/.
Michals, Debra. "Sojourner Truth." National Women's History Museum. 2015. https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/sojourner-truth.
National Parks Service. "Sojourner Truth." September 2, 2017. https://www.nps.gov/wori/learn/historyculture/sojourner-truth.htm.
Painter, Nell Irvin. Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 1996.
PBS. "Sojourner Truth." 2003. http://www.pbs.org/thisfarbyfaith/people/sojourner_truth.html.
Sojourner Truth Memorial Committee. "Who Was Sojourner Truth?" Accessed January 04, 2019. https://sojournertruthmemorial.org/.
The Sojourner Truth Project. 2017. https://www.thesojournertruthproject.com/.
Truth, Sojourner, and Olive Gilbert. "Narrative of Sojourner Truth, a Northern Slave, Emancipated from Bodily Servitude by the State of New York, in 1828:." Documenting the American South. 2000. https://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/truth50/truth50.html.
White, Deborah Gray. Ar'n't I a Woman? New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 1985.
Wick, Karl R., and Susan B. Wick. Esopus. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2003.
YouTube Video: Alice Walker - https://youtu.be/EsjdLL3MrKk
Opening Quotation From: Painter, Nell Irvin. Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 1996.