- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 5, 2008

An ill-used slave on Northern plantations, she never could have dreamed that one day she would meet and talk with the president of the United States. That moment lay far in the future, by which time she had become well-known and respected. By then, she had stopped using her original name.

Isabella Baumfree was born in 1797 on the Hardenbergh plantation at Swartekill, in Ulster County, N.Y., a region settled by the Dutch and known today as the Catskills. Nine years later, she was on another estate at nearby Kingston, and two years hence at New Paltz. Illiterate but highly intelligent, in maturity she stood nearly 6 feet tall and was powerfully built, with an unusually deep voice.

One of 13 children born to James and Elizabeth Baumfree, slaves at the Hardenbergh plantation, she was subjected to frequent cruelty until she fled to freedom in 1826, taking with her Sophia, the youngest of her five children. Later, she would be reunited with her son Peter, but he would prove a constant source of trouble. In 1827, slaves born after 1799 in New York State were emancipated.

She was taken in by Isaac and Marie Van Wagenen, who treated her well. Initially speaking only Dutch, she eventually became fluent in English. Deeply religious, she became a lay preacher.

She settled in New York City for a time, but in 1844, she joined the Northampton Association of Education and Industry, a grandiose name for a farming and milling cooperative in Massachusetts. This brought her into contact with William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass, among others, and she became a committed abolitionist, determined to help further the cause of enslaved women. Three years before the Northampton Association collapsed in 1846, she began to call herself Sojourner Truth.

In 1850, she dictated her memoirs, “The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave,” to Olive Gilbert, a fellow member of the Northampton Association. It had an introduction by Garrison, who published the book. It brought in a useful income for its author.

Sojourner Truth traveled widely, becoming renowned for public speaking. It was while addressing a women’s rights audience in 1851 in Akron, Ohio, that she asked, “Ain’t I a woman?” - a passionately voiced question for which she always would be remembered. Throughout the 1850s, she was on the move constantly, but she nevertheless bought a house near Battle Creek, Mich.

With the coming of the Civil War, this fervent abolitionist and preacher threw herself wholeheartedly into the situation as it affected blacks in the North. She was an advocate of blacks enlisting, and once they were in uniform, she appealed for funds to support them. However, rugged though her constitution was, her strenuous lifestyle was beginning to take its toll by 1863. During a period of ill health, she lived with a family in Battle Creek.

The following year, she went to Washington, where in October she met Abraham Lincoln at the White House as a member of the National Freedmen’s Relief Association. It must have been a momentous occasion for her, even though she was never lacking in confidence. For a time, she worked at Freedmen’s Hospital in Washington, predecessor of Howard University Hospital. She never stopped traveling. Detroit knew her in 1868; Philadelphia and New Jersey met her in 1869.

Lincoln was not to be the only U.S. president with whom Sojourner Truth had a conversation. In 1870, she expressed her belief to Ulysses S. Grant that former slaves should be provided with free land in the West. In this, she was to be disappointed. Her “Book of Life” was published in 1871.

Throughout the early 1870s, Sojourner Truth remained active in her work, but in the winter of 1874, when she was 77, she began to suffer from an ulcerated leg. By 1883, both legs were ulcerated, and she failed to respond satisfactorily to treatment. This indomitable woman, a fighter for her beliefs throughout her years of freedom, had reached the end of her remarkable life. She died at Battle Creek on Nov. 26, 1883, at age 86.

Long after she was gone but by no means forgotten, Sojourner Truth was honored by the U.S. Postal Service, which put a portrait of her on a stamp in the Black Heritage Series.

* Peter Cliffe, a retired corporate administrator, lives in Hertfordshire, England. He became interested in the Civil War while working with a multinational firm in this country.

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