When learning about the lives of extraordinary individuals – whether it’s famous women in history or someone from my own family tree – I’m always curious about their childhood. What experiences did they have that formed them into the human being they became. What things did they see, what choices did they make in their formative years that allowed them to make more courageous choices later?
No life I have studied shows the connection between early life experience and later life choices more clearly than that of Sojourner Truth.
Born into slavery in 1797, Bell Baumfree lived in Esopus, New York with her parents and siblings until she was nine years old when she was sold at auction “with a flock of sheep” for $100 and removed to Kingston, New York. Two years later, after daily beatings, she was sold for $105 to a tavern keeper in Port Ewen, New York. Another two years passed before she was again sold and sent to live in West Park, New York where she endured regular “harassment” from her owner’s wife.
When she was 18 years old, Bell had a tragic love affair with a slave from a neighboring farm. Her lover’s owner knew that if she got pregnant he would not own the offspring and so forbade their relationship. When he caught them together, he beat the man so severely that he shortly died from his injuries. Bell’s firstborn child was born several months following this incident. The girl did not live long and it is not known whether she was the child of the slave owner or the lover.
Eventually, Bell was forced into marriage with a man named Thomas. To that union she bore four children. Her last child, Sophia, was born in 1826. At that time, Bell’s owner promised her freedom. Then he changed his mind. Furious over the injustice, Bell escaped with her infant daughter, leaving her other children behind. A Van Wagenen family took her in and offered her a job.
Almost a year later, following 30 years of abolitionist legislation and preparations by the state of New York, emancipation was declared on July 4th, 1827. In inquiring about her other children, Bell learned that her five year old son, Peter, was illegally sold to a slave owner in Alabama. (Legislation had been passed years earlier, in anticipation of emancipation, that no slaves could be sold out of state.) Again, furious over the injustice, Bell took the slave owner to court and, after months of legal battles, won her son’s freedom. In so doing, she became the first black woman to take a white man to court and win. Details on the case can be found in this biographical sketch published in the Inter Ocean of 1 December 1883.
There is much more to the story of Bell Baumfree. In 1843, following spiritual guidance, she changed her name to Sojourner Truth. We can find Sojourner in the 1880 Federal Census here,
She became an outspoken abolitionist, a defender of women’s rights, and a deeply religious pacifist. She owned property. She travelled. She spoke before hundreds of audiences, often with thousands in attendance. She wore out her life in service to the causes she held dear, informed by the experiences of her childhood.
In honor of International Women’s Day on March 8th, we are hosting a series entitled “Leaving a Legacy: Important Women in History,” which will feature notable women who influenced the world through their life’s work, immense courage or commitment to a cause.
Find our other notable women here,