Sojourner Truth was born Isabella Bomefree (later spelled Baumfree) about 1797 at Hurley, Ulster County, New York. Her parents were James and Betsy, slaves of Colonel Hardenbergh. Upon the Colonel1s death, their ownership passed to his son, Charles Hardenbergh.
Isabella was sold four times:
1806- to Neeley (with a flock of sheep), for $100.00
1808- to Shriver, for $105.00
1810- to Dumont, for $300.00
1828- to Van Wagener, who bought Isabella and her daughter Sophia to give them their freedom.
Isabella spoke low Dutch until she was about 10 years old, and never learned to read or write. She was the mother of five children:
Diane, b. 1815; buried at Oak Hill Cemetery, Battle Creek, Michigan
Peter, b. 1822; surmised to have been lost at sea
Elizabeth, b. 1825; buried at Oak Hill Cemetery, Battle Creek, Michigan
Sophia, b. 1826; buried at Harmonia Cemetery, Bedford Township, Calhoun County, Michigan
Isabella changed her name to Sojourner Truth in 1843, as she planned to travel the land telling the truth. There are some reports that this change was a response to a religious vision Truth experienced. She led a varied and colorful life in the East, where she won three lawsuits:
When she retrieved her son, Peter, who had been sold illegally in New York state.
A slander suit in New York city.
When she was injured in a street car incident in Washington, D.C.
Sojourner Truth owned property in Northampton, Massachusetts before the Quaker Henry Willis brought her to Battle Creek to speak on October 4, 1856. Truth then bought a home at Harmonia, which is now part of the Fort Custer Industrial Park. This property was sold be the heirs in 1896.
In 1863 the Anti-Slavery Standard newspaper printed that Sojourner was ill at her home in Battle Creek and in need of funds. With this announcement, the donations poured in. In return she dispatched a letter to the Standard wishing her friends to know "She had budded out with the trees, but may fall with the Autumn leaves." She lived another 20 years and there were many false reports of her death in this period.
An 1867 letter written for Sojourner tells of her buying a lot with a barn on it at (what was then) 10 College Street from William Merritt, which she intended to make into a home. She stated that she had mortgaged everything she had to buy it, except for her body and a few old rags. This property was later purchased by the Battle Creek Postmaster who moved her small house to the back of the lot, building a new home in front. In 1915 there was a city-wide cleanup campaign and Sojourner1s old home, which he was using for a storage shed, was torn down. The only thing that remains of this structure today is a small piece of wood in the Sojourner Truth case at Kimball House Museum.
Sojourner spoke for women1s rights, abolition, prison reform, and addressed the Michigan Legislature against capital punishment. She women to task for the way they dressed, trussing themselves up in corsets and wearing high heeled shoes and hats trimmed with goose feathers, looking like they were ready to take off and fly like birds.
When she was invited to speak at a meeting at Florence, Massachusetts, she had just returned from a tiring trip. When called upon to speak, she rose and said, "Children, I have come here like the rest of you to hear what I have to say." In 1869 she gave up smoking her clay pipe. A friend had admonished her for the habit, telling her the Bible says that "no unclean thing can enter the Kingdom of Heaven", asking her how she expected to be admitted with her smoker1s bad breath. She replied, "When I goes to Heaven I expects to leave my bad breath behind." These are typical of her spontaneous and witty remarks. Probably her most famous address is the one she made at a Woman1s Rights Convention, which is referred to as her "Ain1t I A Woman" speech.
Not all people and churches welcomed her preaching and lectures, as some thought her crazy and ignorant. To her favor, she had many friends and staunch supporters among influential people of the period, including Amy Post, Parker Pillsbury, Mrs. Frances Gage, Wendell Phillips, William Garrison, Laura Haviland, Lucretia Mott, and Susan B. Anthony.
During the Civil War, a number of men from Battle Creek joined the 1st Michigan Colored Infantry (which later became the 102nd U.S. Colored Infantry). They were stationed at Camp Ward, near Detroit. In 1863 Sojourner went to visit these troops, taking with her a Thanksgiving dinner prepared for them by the people of Battle Creek.
The first all-black Northern regiment formed during the Civil War was the 54th Massachusetts, mustered in at Camp Megis, just outside of Boston. Sojourner1s grandson James Caldwell was a member of this regiment, as were a number of other men from Battle Creek and Marshall. James was taken a prisoner of war at James Island, South Carolina, and released March 4, 1865. He returned to Battle Creek after the war, but there is no local record of his activities or death.
During and after the Civil War, thousands of slaves fled to Washington D.C., thinking that if they reached the capital, they would be safe and free. However, the government was totally unprepared for an influx of this magnitude. There was no place for them to live, very little food, and no employment. Sojourner worked with these people at Freedmen1s Village trying to improve their living conditions and was later employed by the government1s Freedmen1s Bureau.
It became an accepted practice for Maryland residents to come into the village to steal black children. If the parents complained of this illegal activity they were put into the guardhouse. When Sojourner learned of this kidnapping she told the parents that their rights were being violated and they had the legal right to protest. When it became known that Sojourner was giving out this advice, she was threatened with being thrown into the guardhouse also. Sojourner replied that if they attempted to do so, she would "make this nation rock like a cradle".
1864 letter written for Sojourner:
Am paid counselor at Freedmen1s village instructing women in home care among other duties (nursing, etc.). Trying to find out who is selling clothing to the colored people that was donated to the Colored Soldier1s Society, and was supposed to be given out free.
Sojourner was very active in trying to relocate her fellow blacks to less populated areas, particularly to the Western states. Sojourner urged the government to give them free land in these states and to pay their transportation costs. She carried petitions for this proposal with her, constantly asking people to sign them, making the remark "Why don't some of you stir Œem up (the government) as though an old body like myself could do all the stirring".
According to Battle Creek newspapers Sojourner spoke here in 1868, 1871, and 1872. She probably made many more public appearances which were not recorded. However, many of the speeches made outside of Michigan were followed quite closely and occasionally a complete text was printed.
On November 13, 1872, it was noted in a Battle Creek newspaper that Sojourner had tried to cast her vote in a local election. An 1881 article mentioned that she had brought one of her new pictures into the Moon-Journal offices, which she was selling for 50¢.
Sojourner Truth died at her home on College Street on November 26, 1883. Her funeral services, which was aid to have been attended by 1000 people, was held at the Presbyterian-Congregational Church. She is buried at Oak Hill Cemetery, Battle Creek, Michigan, lot #634, with other members of her family.
Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth were attending a meeting in Faneuil Hall, Boston, in 1850. Frederick had been speaking very despondently. A hush came over the audience as Sojourner rose and admonished Mr. Douglass by asking, "Frederick, is God dead?" These three words, "Is God Dead?" are inscribed on her tombstone, along with her reputed age of 105 which is really thought to be more like 86.
Mrs. Francis Titus, wife of Battle Creek millers Richard Titus, was Sojourner1s friend, biographer, traveling companion, sponsor, and lecture manager. In 1886 Mrs. Titus asked the public for donations to erect a suitable marker at Sojourner1s grave. This first marker was erected in 1891, paid for by T.B. Skinner, Judge Benjamin Graves, and Mrs. Titus. The marker deteriorated over time and was replaced by a second marker in 1916, followed by a third in 1946. A historical marker was put on her grave in 1961 by the Sojourner Truth Association.
In 1892, Mrs. Titus commissioned Franklin C. Courter to paint a rendition of the meeting between Sojourner and President Abraham Lincoln. The meeting had taken place October 29, 1864, at the White House in Washington D.C. At the meeting the President had displayed to Sojourner the Bible presented to him by the black people of Baltimore, Maryland. Known as the Lincoln Bible, it was presented to Fisk University, Nashville, Tennessee, by the president1s son Robert. The Bible was thought to be lost for a time, but is now reported to be on prominent display at Fisk.
When the Courter painting was completed it was shown at the 1893 Chicago World1s Columbian Exposition. It was then brought back to Battle Creek and hung in the old Battle Creek Sanitarium. When the Sanitarium burned to the ground in 1902, the painting was lost. Fortunately, a local painter named Frank Perry had taken a picture of the canvas and copies of his photograph could be purchased by the public. It is Perry1s photographic copy of the painting that is most frequently used today, although black artist Lottie Wilson painted a copy of the photo which is on display at the Niles Public Library in Niles, Michigan. There is another rendition by John Jackson of Detroit around 1913 or 1915 which is in the Detroit Museum.
There are many memorials and tributes to Sojourner Truth in Battle Creek, Michigan:
1901: Sojourner Truth Society formed
1915: Sojourner Truth memorial Association formed
1935: Dedication of a stone in the cairn at Post Park to Sojourner
1944: Sojourner Truth Memorial Association incorporates
1966: Mayor Preston Kool declares May 18 to be Sojourner Truth Day
1987: A Michigan Women1s Studies marker is placed
Dedication of North M-66 highway as Sojourner Truth Memorial Highway
The Sojourner Truth plaque in the Hall of Justice.
A United States postage stamp was issued in Sojourner Truth1s honor in 1986, and Sojourner has been named to both the Michigan and National Women1s Hall of Fame.