Sojourner Truth is a well-known figure in U.S. History as a self-emancipated preacher, abolitionist, and activist for women’s rights. In 2014, Truth was included in Smithsonian magazine’s list of the “100 Most Significant Americans of All Time.” After more extensive research, there is a new story about Truth’s famous speech, ‘Ain’t I a Woman’ that has recently been revealed that changes long held beliefs about Truth’s history and heritage. Born Isabella, she was the youngest of ten or twelve children ( the exact number is not known), to James and Betsey Baumfree. Her parents were enslaved by Colonel Johannes Hardenbergh a Dutch-speaking landowner. When the Colonel died, Isabella was ‘inherited’ by his son Charles, whom she describes in her autobiography as cruel and harsh. When she was nine years old, she was sold for $100 to John Neely near Kingston, New York. What most people don’t know is that until she was nine, Truth spoke only Dutch.
Born Isabella, she was the youngest of ten or twelve children (the exact number is not known), to James and Betsey Baumfree. Her parents were enslaved by Colonel Johannes Hardenbergh a Dutch-speaking landowner. When the Colonel died, Isabella was ‘inherited’ by his son Charles, whom she describes in her autobiography as cruel and harsh. When she was nine years old, she was sold for $100 to John Neely near Kingston, New York. What most people don’t know is that until she was nine, Truth spoke only Dutch.
New publications and initiatives bring to light and raise the awareness of this and other often hidden or forgotten histories. For example, in my new co-authored book: Dutch New York Histories – Connecting African, Native American and Slavery Heritage (2017, LM Publishers/Washington University Press) we include the site of a Sojourner Truth memorial showing her at nine years old, at the location near where she walked a path where she was enslaved, in the present-day village of Port Ewen, NY. We also visit the memorial during the Black Heritage Tour in New York State, that I originally founded in Amsterdam (Netherlands) in 2013. the New York tour, co-created with my fellow authors) launched in 2016 expanding the narrative to include its transnational history in the U.S. The tour travels from the state capital in Albany, NY through the Hudson River Valley to New York City (formerly New Netherland) exploring African burial grounds, Indigenous lands and landmarks, regional and state historic sites connected to the Dutch who first colonized the area.
Isabella remained enslaved until 1826 when she emancipated herself and “walked away” with her youngest child, Sophia, an infant at the time. Two years later, in 1828, Isabella won a lawsuit against her former enslaver, John Dumont, who had illegally sold her son Peter to an enslaver in Alabama. During the tour, we also visit the courthouse where she filed her case and won. She was one of the first Black women to win a case against a white person. Over the next several years she became a devout Christian. In 1843, at age 46, she was summoned to her apostleship. She declared, “The Spirit calls me, and I must go” and changed her name to Sojourner Truth. As a traveling preacher, her singing and speeches became famous. She was constantly on the road campaigning against slavery and earned her keep by selling her life story (printed 1850) and photos with her image.
Truth also became the first Black woman to speak at the Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio in 1851. Her speech demanded equal human rights for all women as well as for all Black people. Different versions of Truth’s words have been recorded. Most people are familiar with the popular version,“Ain’t I a woman”, which was written 12 years after the convention, and have no idea that this version is not Sojourner’s words and is vastly different from her original 1851 speech.
The convention was organized by Hannah Tracy and Frances Dana Barker Gage, who both were presentwhen Truth spoke. The first version was published a month after the convention in the Anti-Slavery Bugle by Rev. Marius Robinson, the newspaper’s owner and editor. Robinson’s recounting of the speech did not include the question “Ain’t I a Woman?”, but was titled, “On Woman’s Rights.” Twelve years later, in May 1863, Gage published another very different version was written where Truth’s speech pattern was changed to reflect characteristics and dialect of people enslaved in the South. Gage’s version of the speech became the historic standard version recalled, known as “Ain’t I a Woman?” where that question was repeated several times. Why are there different versions? And, how is it that Gage who not only changed Sojourner’s words but also chose to represent Sojourner speaking in a stereotypical ‘Southern black accent,’ rather than in her distinct upper New York State low-Dutch accent, has until now remained popularized and mostly unchallenged for over 160 years?
Even though Francis Gage, who was known as an abolitionist, may have had in her mind ‘good intentions’ in doing so, racism played a role in her decision to not only change Truth’s words but also altering her authentic voice. The Sojourner Truth Project, initiated by Leslie Podel, a student at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco took on the research project to re-introduce the original transcription that has led to the creation of a website (www.thesojournertruthproject.com) that includes new voices with what would have been a closer match to is Ms. Truth’s voice. The results are astounding. The beautifully structured website provides a page that compares the two speeches side-by-side and another page visitors can watch and listen to the more authentic speech recited by Black-Dutch women. Podell is clear that ‘we will never know exactly what Sojourner said on that day in 1851 or exactly what her dialect sounded like, but the videos on the site help us move in the [right] direction.”Sojourner Truth’s legacy is undeniable. More than one thousand people attended her funeral at Oak Hill Cemetery in Battle Creek, Ohio, where she spent the last years of her life. She paved the way for women’s rights,
Sojourner Truth’s legacy is undeniable. More than one thousand people attended her funeral at Oak Hill Cemetery in Battle Creek, Ohio, where she spent the last years of her life. She paved the way for women’s rights, the full emancipation of enslaved men, women and children and so much more. She has been honored with dozens of memorials/monuments; and, in 2016 the U.S. Treasury announced that the Truth will be featured on the new design of the $10 that will pay homage to women’s suffrage movement and the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which ordered in women’s right to vote. It’s a fitting tribute to a woman who’s life
To learn more about the initiatives mentioned
contact Jennifer at: firstname.lastname@example.org
and/or visit The Sojourner Truth Project: www.thesojournertruthproject.com
Black Heritage Tours – New York State: www.blackheritagetours.com
Dutch New York Histories book: www.washington.edu/uwpress/search/books/HONDUT.html