The early life of the abolitionist and women’s rights advocate, Sojourner Truth.
She presented an imposing figure, standing upon the raised dais. All towering six feet of her, her arms akimbo, her stance belligerently assertive, emphasized her iron will. Her back ramrod straight with pride, in a thunderous, sonorous voice she challenged, “Ain’t I a woman?”
Her journey to that dais was a long and arduous one. She was born into slavery as Isabella Baumfree in Ulster County, New York, in the year 1797, “as near as she could reckon.” She, her parents, and her six siblings were the chattels of a certain Colonel Ardinburgh. They fared relatively well until their master passed away and his son, Charles, inherited the estate and all its property.
Charles decided to build a hotel and confined his slaves to a rough cellar beneath it. Sojorner decribes it as follows: “its only light consisted of a few panes of glass, through which the sun never shone, but with thrice reflected rays, and the space between the loose boards of the floor, and the uneven earth below, was often filled with mud and water, the uncomfortable splashings of which were as annoying as its noxious vapors must have been chilling and fatal to health.” The slaves were constantly ill, and the eldest among them afflicted with severe rheumatism as a consequence of their living conditions.
Things carried on as usual and there was much toil. As her brother grew into manhood and became one possessed of a strong back, Isabella and her parents feared the inevitable day when they would be separated from him. One morning he went outside to gather kindling for his mother’s cooking fire. Upon going outside he wondered at the first snow of the season and took delight in the arrival of his master on a bright sleigh. As his entire family watched he neared the awesome contraption. He was scooped up by the master and borne away— to the everlasting sorrow of those who were left in the wake.
Isabella’s mother was especially burdened by the loss, but her faith did not waiver. She assured her offspring, “My children, there is a God who hears and sees you.” Her children were reassured by her words — and her comfort that the same God watching over them also kept guard over their dear brother. When they gazed at the starbright evening sky they knew that, he, too, gazed upon God’s creation.
When Isabella reached the age of 9 their master died. Isabella was subsequently offered forth on the odious auction block. She was auctioned off to John Nealy, and recalled, “Now the war was begun.” She was referring to her war for survival in unstable conditions. She and her new mistress did not get on well, as she spoke only Dutch and they spoke only English. She was subjected to frequent beatings, which involved her trip to the barn. There a bundled cord of heated whips awaited her, and she was mercilessly flogged, until her back was a mass of open sores. Later in life she noted, “And now, when I hear ’em tell of whipping women in the bare flesh it makes my flesh crawl, and my very hair rise on my head.”
Through the intervention of her father a Mr. Scriver bought her. Her new situation was one of constant toil, but no cruelty. For a year she labored upon improving the farm of the Scrivers’ and attending the making of molasses for their tavern. At the end of the year she was sold once again, this time to a kind master.
Mr. Dumont practiced the humane treatment of his slaves and appreciated the devotion and industriousness of Isabella. His wife did not, and preferred her white servants. One of her minions in particular, a termagant named Kate, sought to transform Isabella’s existence into one of abject misery. She played sly tricks upon Isabella at the bequest of her mistress, who was envious of the admiration her husband held for the haughty slave. The wretch was finally caught in the act of throwing ashes into the boiling potatoes, thus cementing her blame. Isabella was further absolved.
Isabella and a neighboring slave developed a tendre for one another and would often pay court. Finally, Robert’s owners forbade him any further association with Isabella and commanded him to find a wife among the slaves on his own estate. He rebelled against their wishes. He furtively stole away to pay her a visit when she was ill. His masters learned of his betrayal and arrived at the Dumont farm irate and bent upon forcing him into continued obedience. They beat him so badly that his will to assert his own wishes was no longer enough to incite a desire for the consequences of such behavior.
Forlorn, but resigned, Isabella married Thomas, another slave on the Dumont farm. She bore five children before 1827 and saw all but her last sold into slavery.
The emancipation act of 1827 set her free of her legal obligation, but her master insisted that she remain for another year in his service. She did so, and in 1828, departed with her infant strapped to her back and a light heart. She found refuge with the Van Wegners, where she sought to get on her feet. Her former master, Dumont, found her there. “When her master saw her, he said, ‘Well, Bell, so you’ve run away from me.’ ‘No, I did not run away; I walked away by day-light, and all because you had promised me a year of my time.’ His reply was, ‘You must go back with me.’ Her decisive answer was, ‘No, I won’t go back with you.’ He said, ‘Well, I shall take the child.’ This also was as stoutly negatived.” (p 15, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth).
This inflamed Sojourner and set into motion her self reinvention.