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Staff Favorite: African American Leader Edition - Who Was Sojourner Truth?

In honor of Black History Month, HHYC would like to make a special point to highlight influential African American leaders. My own favorite African American leader is Sojourner Truth, an well-known advocate for the rights of both African Americans and women throughout the nineteenth century.



 

Early Life

Sojourner was born to John and Elizabeth Bomfree as Isabella Bomfree in 1797, living as a slaves in New York state. Sojourner, then Isabella, was never taught to read or write, and she began working alongside her mother at the age of five.

Isabella was sold four times throughout her time enslaved, and was separated from her blood family at the age of nine.

Isabella was subjected to harsh working conditions and cruel punishment whilst enslaved, including being forced into an intimate relationship with her current enslaver during her teenage years. Isabella had at least one child as a result of this relationship, and then went on to marry a fellow slave and have four more children.

New York state's laws on enslavement underwent gradual amendments that would make Isabella eligible for emancipation in 1827. John, her enslaver and father to her eldest child, promised to release Isabella one year earlier. Despite his promises, John did not release Isabella. In 1826 Isabella fled with her youngest daughter to the home of a local abolitionist family who was able to purchase her freedom. In retaliation, John illegally sold one of Isabella's sons into a life of slavery. Isabella immediately begin to fight for the return of custody of her son, and through this process underwent a spiritual awakening in which she dedicated her life to God.

 

The Birth of Sojourner

After working as a domestic servant and studying her religion for 11 years, Isabella changed her name to Sojourner Truth at the age of 45.

Under the hope of protection from God, Sojourner began traveling throughout the Northeast to advocate for nationwide emancipation and women's rights. Being from humble means, Sojourner had little money for travel. She often walked and slept outdoors during her journey.

Sojourner met with famous abolitionist leaders such as Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison, and was often known to challenge the opposition head on. Sojourner was not afraid to confront even the most famous of celebrities in order to advocate for her cause. She was often attacked, both verbally and physically. At one point, Sojourner was beaten so badly that she was left with a limp for the rest of her life.

In 1850, Sojourner attended the Ohio Women's Convention where she gave her famous "Ain't I a Woman?" speech, despite direction from fellow women's rights leaders to remain quiet.

At the start of the Civil War in 1861, Sojourner began recruiting soldiers for the Union Army. While she was not fond of violence, she believed that war was a punishment set forth by God for the offense of slavery.

Soon after in 1864, Sojourner moved to Washington D.C. to take a job with National Freedman’s Relief Association, "striving to improve the lives and prospects of free Black people (New York History)." Later that year she was invited to meet President Abraham Lincoln.

Sojourner continued her work lobbying for the betterment of infringed individuals, mostly African Americans and women, up until her death in 1883.


Why Sojourner?

Sojourner "Isabella" Truth is my favorite African American leader because she seems to embody what it means to be a well-rounded leader.

Sojourner fought for what she felt was right fearlessly and without apology. Not only did she fight for African Americans, but she lobbied for women's rights, prison reform, and many different aspects of social justice.

No issue was above her limits. She fought for injustice in any portion of society, not only those that affected her personally.

Even though she lived in a society that did not fight for her, she fought for its betterment every single day.

Sojourner is an inspiring leader from all aspects and I hope to one day be half as hard working and pure of heart as she was.


References

Boomer, L. (2022, August 3). Life story: Sojourner truth. Women & the American Story. Retrieved February 3, 2023, from https://wams.nyhistory.org/a-nation-divided/antebellum/sojourner-truth/


Michals, D. (Ed.). (n.d.). Biography: Sojourner Truth. National Women's History Museum. Retrieved February 3, 2023, from https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/sojourner-truth





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