Welcome to the Sojourner Truth Trail, which offers a glimpse into the life of this remarkable woman, mother, abolitionist and suffragette.
After escaping three decades of enslavement in Ulster County by crossing Shaupeneak Ridge, she went on to become a passionate advocate in the Abolitionist, Suffragette and Civil Rights movements. Possessed of a commanding presence, fearlessness, unbounded compassion and generosity, Sojourner Truth worked tirelessly to improve the lives of others. She serves as a shining example of how each of us has the potential to make the world a better place.
Information on the five signs along the trail comes from The Narrative of Sojourner Truth, an autobiography she dictated to her friend Olive Gilbert in 1850.
Isabella the Enslaved
Born Isabella Baumfree, Sojourner Truth (1797-1883) spent the first 29 years of her life enslaved in Ulster County. She was sold three times and often treated cruelly by her enslavers. She worked longest for John Dumont, who promised her freedom in 1826, one year before New York emancipated slaves.
When Dumont renounced his promise, Isabella took matters into her own hands. Leaving behind a husband and 3 of her 4 children, she walked 11.5 miles to freedom over Shaupeneak Ridge. Isabella found help from Quaker Levi Rowe and his wife, whose cabin stood nearby. The next day, she continued her journey to the home the Van Wagenen family, who paid Dumont $25 to gain the freedom of Isabella and her infant daughter.
“As she gained the summit of a high hill, a considerable distance from her master’s, the sun offended her by coming forth in all his pristine splendor. She thought it never was so light before…”Excerpt from “The Narrative of Sojourner Truth”
Isabella the Mother
While at the Van Wagenens, Isabella learned that Peter, her 5-year-old son, had been sold illegally by Dumont to an Alabama slaveholder. This was a common tactic of New York slave owners—selling enslaved children out of state before emancipation freed them.
Isabella voiced her complaint at the Ulster County Courthouse in Kingston. Facing stiff punishment, the local middleman in the sale had Peter returned several months later—but the boy remained enslaved. Isabella secured a lawyer who promised to gain Peter’s freedom within 24 hours for $5. Isabella walked 10 miles to Poppletown (near here) to seek help from some Quakers. Thanks to their generosity, she paid the lawyer double and was reunited with her son the following evening. This marked the first time a black woman defeated a white man in court—and the first of many successful campaigns Truth undertook to raise funds for righteous causes.
“Isabella understood the Judge to declare, as the sentence of the Court, that the ‘boy be delivered into the hands of the mother—having no other master, no other controller, no other conductor, but his mother.’ This sentence was obeyed; he was delivered into her hands.”Excerpt from “The Narrative of Sojourner Truth”
Sojourner the Abolitionist
Isabella changed her name to Sojourner Truth in 1843. She joined several religious communities, which taught her about equality and self-worth. Gaining renown as a preacher and singer, she used her popularity to speak out against slavery—a danger since appeals for abolition often led to violence. Sojourner confronted injustice head on by standing her ground. Once, like Rosa Parks, she refused to give up her seat (in her case, on a streetcar), demanding she deserved to sit like anyone else. Typical of her spirit, she rode farther than she needed just to enjoy her victory.
After recruiting and tending wounded soldiers during the Civil War, Sojourner was asked to join the National Freedman’s Relief Association to advise newly freed slaves in Virginia. Dismayed by their great poverty, she worked tirelessly to find them jobs, build schools for their children and try to secure restitution for them from Congress. A pivotal leader in the early fight for civil rights, Sojourner continued speaking out against slavery and injustice until she was well into her 80s.
“I feel safe even in the midst of my enemies; for the truth is powerful and will prevail.”Sojourner Truth
Sojourner the Suffragette
Believing in the equality of all people, Sojourner became a powerful ally in the fight for women’s rights, delivering lectures about the issue in more than 20 states. Though suffragettes and abolitionists were hesitant at first to associate with one another—they often wound up arguing about whose cause was more important—Sojourner continuously worked to bridge the gap and ensure that the voices of black women were heard on both issues.
Sojourner’s address “Ain’t I a Woman” in 1851 to the Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, became her most famous speech. It challenged the prevailing notion that men were superior to women, and it called on women to act together in the fight to gain their rights. Sojourner emphasized that the giving of freedom can only be beneficial because it takes away nothing from those who already have secured it.
“If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down, these women together ought to be able to turn it right again and now that they are asking to do it, the men better let them.”Sojourner Truth
In later years, Sojourner kept what she called her “Book of Life,” which contained signatures and adulatory letters from important people she met, including President Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass. Even though she could not read, she carried these positive messages with her wherever she went.
Today, Sojourner Truth remains an inspiration to those facing adversity and standing up for justice for all people. In 2009, the National Congress of Black Women donated a statue of her for placement in the U.S. Capitol’s Emancipation Hall. She was the first black woman to receive this honor.
“All the visitors in the U.S. Capitol will hear the story of brave women who endured the greatest of humanity’s indignities. They’ll hear the story of Sojourner Truth, who didn’t allow those indignities to destroy her spirit, who fought for her own freedom and then used her powers to help others…. Truth’s story will be told again and again and again and again.”Michelle Obama
The Sojourner Truth Trail can be found at Shaupeneak Ridge in Esopus, NY.