Who was Sojourner Truth?
Sojourner Truth was a former slave who lived in Florence, Massachusetts (a village of Northampton) from 1843-1857. She came to Florence to join the Northampton Association of Education and Industry, a utopian community dedicated to equality and justice. In the mid-nineteenth century, Sojourner Truth became a nationally known advocate for justice and equality between races and between men and women. She is honored in American history for “The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave” (1850), for innumerable speeches against slavery and for women’s rights, for her work on behalf of freedmen after the Civil War, and for her ability to keep audiences enthralled through singing and eloquent speeches.
Sojourner Truth was born a slave near Kingston, New York in approximately 1797. Her given name was Isabella Baumfree. She labored for four masters and in 1826 took her freedom from John Dumont, her last owner. She soon moved to New York City where she worked as a household helper and then joined a millennial spiritual community, The Kingdom. When that group disbanded in scandal in 1835, she went to court and proved libel and so preserved her reputation. She continued to work in New York City until 1843 when she felt a call from God to become a preacher. When she left New York City, she changed her name to Sojourner Truth and eventually made her way to Florence, to the Northampton Association of Education and Industry.
While the Northampton Association was a relatively short-lived experiment as a formal community, its existence gave testimony to that special human spirit which seeks to increase justice and improve society, to promote – as its founders wrote – “advancement in truth and goodness.”
While at the Association and living in Florence Sojourner Truth met many of the country’s important abolitionists: William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Frederick Douglass, David Ruggles. These leaders, along with Samuel L. Hill, Elisha Hammond, George W. Benson, Austin Ross, and J.P. Williston, helped establish Florence as a center of antislavery resistance. At least four former slaves who lived in Florence bought houses in the village. Several Florence homes were stops on the Underground Railroad.
After the Association disbanded, Sojourner Truth remained in Florence, where she bought her first home, dictated her classic autobiography to Olive Gilbert, and became a nationally known advocate for women’s rights and the abolition of slavery. Sojourner’s house on Park Street remains today, though the house has been modified.
Sojourner left Florence in 1857 and moved eventually to Harmonia Community, Michigan and then to Battle Creek, Michigan where she died in 1883.