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Black History Month Spotlight: Sojourner Truth

Sojourner Truth is the first person that popped up in my mind as I was wondering who to choose out of the many important Black historical figures. Then, I questioned why I even thought of her in the first place - why Sojourner Truth? That’s right, I realized. I had briefly read a speech from her in a gender studies class that I took last semester. We were always assigned a reading for homework to complete before class, usually a speech or an article created by an inspiring woman. It was the first time I'd heard of Sojourner Truth. It was a little strange to me after we read about her, that I have never heard of her throughout my school years. This was when I realized that we simply haven’t gone over many Black historical figures in classes. We’ve all heard of Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, who are easily the most identifiable names when you think about the Civil Rights Movement. Harriet Tubman is also a well-known figure in Black history, as is Frederick Douglass. These people are few of the many great figures in Black history, but there are a lot more to remember. Here is a woman who is part of what represents the struggles and hardships that define Black history, as well as the immense resilience and bravery that it took to overcome it all.

Sojourner Truth spoke out against a number of issues that were prevalent in the 19th century. She is considered to be one of the most important advocates for civil and women’s rights, and is particularly known for her famous “Ain’t I a Woman” speech - which highlighted the intersectionality of her status as a woman, along with her race. It was delivered at the Women’s Rights Convention in 1851, but it gained significant attention when the speech was published by Frances Gage in the middle of the Civil War. Although there were multiple publications that varied from each other, including one that omits the famous line, the speech remains historically significant for its discussion about the way multiple identities impact one’s place in the social hierarchy.

Truth was born as Isabella Baumfree in 1797, when she started out as a slave on a New York estate owned by Colonel Hardenbergh (who also happens to be related to Rutgers University’s first president Jacob Rutsen Hardenbergh). She experienced many hardships during her captivity. After departing from Hardenbergh’s ownership, she was bought and sold to different people over time. Truth was also subjected to harsh abuse like many other slaves, and was forbidden to marry another man by her owner. Instead she was given another man to marry, whom she had several children with. A chance for freedom arrived in 1827, when the New York Anti-Slavery law was supposed to free all of the remaining slaves in the state. However, Truth’s owner refused to let her go, so she took it on her own hands to escape slavery. 

Successfully escaping ownership with the help of an abolitionist family, she and her infant child began a new life. But, the burden that she carried as a slave was still not over for her - it turned out that another one of her children was illegally sold in Alabama. In order to get him back, she went to court to build a case and was able to successfully sue the perpetrator. This victory was the first of its kind, as Truth was able to gain the law’s favor against a white man. After years of experiencing and witnessing the predicaments of slavery, she began to speak out against its evils, eventually becoming well-known as a charismatic orator. During this time, she changed her name to Sojourner Truth. She later began to get involved with the growing Women’s Rights movement, and became an activist for the cause.

Although Truth was not literate, she was able to publish her own autobiography. During and after the Civil War, she continued her efforts to support African-Americans by helping them with employment and starting a new life.

Black History Month allows people of the present to remember the African-Americans who have shaped the future for their race. To this day, the message of Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman” speech remains relevant, as race and gender still continue to impact every person’s lives. Therefore, it is important to not only remember, but also learn about those who have fought against the subjugation of African-Americans.