Born into a Dutch-speaking enslaved family in New York, Isabella Baumfree escaped in 1826, the year before the state emancipated adult slaves. When her former master illegally sold one of her children, she sued in court and in 1828 won her son’s return, a first for an African American woman. In 1843 she changed her name to Sojourner Truth and dedicated her life to traveling and lecturing on abolition and women’s rights.
Truth visited Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Andover, Massachusetts, home in 1853, the year after Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published. A decade later, Stowe’s hyperbolic portrait of Truth in The Atlantic romanticized her in contemporary racial tropes and popularized an enduring nickname, the “Libyan Sibyl,” after a famous sculpture that Stowe claimed was inspired by her earlier account of Truth’s life to the artist. (The sculpture is now in the Smithsonian American Art Museum.) While the article brought Truth’s stories to a national audience and made her a celebrity, it also propagated numerous misconceptions (among others, that Truth was born in Africa and spoke in a Southern dialect).
Truth collected contributions to support black regiments and met with President Lincoln during the war; until her death in 1883 she worked as a tireless advocate for African Americans and women. To support her efforts, she sold her photographic calling cards, captioned “I sell the Shadow to support the Substance,” and copies of her dictated autobiography, Narrative of Sojourner Truth. (This article was reprinted in the Narrative’s 1875 edition.)—Jennifer Farmer Adams
|Photo cards like this one and copies of her autobiography served as Sojourner Truth’s main source of income.|
Many years ago, the few readers of radical Abolitionist papers must often have seen the singular name of Sojourner Truth, announced as a frequent speaker at Anti-Slavery meetings, and as travelling on a sort of self-appointed agency through the country. I had myself often remarked the name, but never met the individual. On one occasion, when our house was filled with company, several eminent clergymen being our guests, notice was brought up to me that Sojourner Truth was below, and requested an interview. Knowing nothing of her but her singular name, I went down, prepared to make the interview short, as the pressure of many other engagements demanded ...
I do not recollect ever to have been conversant with any one who had more of that silent and subtle power which we call personal presence than this woman ... Her tall form, as she rose up before me, is still vivid to my mind. She was dressed in some stout, grayish stuff, neat and clean, though dusty from travel. On her head, she wore a bright Madras handkerchief, arranged as a turban, after the manner of her race. She seemed perfectly self-possessed and at her ease, -- in fact, there was almost an unconscious superiority, not unmixed with a solemn twinkle of humor, in the odd, composed manner in which she looked down on me. Her whole air had at times a gloomy sort of drollery which impressed one strangely.