At the second National Women’s Rights Conference was held in Akron, Ohio, a 54-year-old former slave asked to say a few words. Sojourner Truth electrified the house with her famous, “Ain’t I a woman?” speech so much that it is still well known today. The most commonly quoted version is not the actual speech and was altered to reflect a stereotypical southern slave dialect which was not how Sojourner spoke—she was born in upstate New York and had a Dutch accent! The Sojourner Truth Project has a side by side comparison. (see link below)
While she is best known for that speech, Sojourner Truth’s story is so much more than that. Isabella Freebaum, her original name, was born into slavery in 1797 in upstate New York. Her first language was Dutch because that was the language used in the household. At nine years old, she was sold (along with a herd of sheep) to John Neeley, whose household only spoke English. She became fluent very quickly as she was often beaten for misunderstanding orders; she never lost her Dutch accent. The “uneducated southern slave dialect” we read in the common version of “Arn’t I a woman?” is a complete misrepresentation of how she spoke both in dialect and rhetorical style.
She is often portrayed as having been a run-away slave—that’s not exactly true either. She was sold several times between 1808 and 1827 and endured many hardships at the hands of harsh owners which was the more common experience for slaves—not the exception. Since 1799, the state legislature of New York had been working on gradual emancipation of all slaves. By July 4, 1827, slavery would be completely outlawed in the state. Her current owner, John Dumont, had promised to set her free in 1826 "if she would do well and be faithful." But when the time came, he tried to claim that she had been less productive than expected and reneged. She continued working until she felt she had more than met a fair share of work—spinning an extra 100 pounds of wool— took her infant daughter, Sophia, and left. She later wrote to her sister, "I did not run off, for I thought that wicked, but I walked off, believing that to be all right."
She found refuge in the home of Isaac and Maria Van Wagenen. Her former owner, caught up with her and demanded she return at least for the last year before the law went into effect. She agreed but only if he paid her for her work which he begrudgingly did. Staying with the Van Wagenens, she set about getting her other two children, Peter and Elizabeth.
Peter, who was only five, had been leased by Dumont, to another slaveowner who illegally sold him to an owner in Alabama! She sought help and the Quakers assisted in making an appeal to the courts. Months later, Peter was returned, albeit scarred and abused, but this was the first time an African American—male or female--won a court case against a white man.
It was also during this time that Isabella Freebaum felt a divine awakening of her spirit and she became a skilled preacher. She changed her name to Sojourner Truth. She has so many more chapters to her life including dictated a memoir, “The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave,” privately published by William Lloyd Garrison in 1850. When she finally passed away in 1883 she left a long list of accomplishments and an inspirational legacy that lives on today.
This week’s song pick:
“This Is Me” from The Greatest Showman: https://youtu.be/CjxugyZCfuw
Compare the speeches:
Episode 13 Sources: