Sojourner Truth was born Isabella Baumfree around 1797 to slave parents Elizabeth and James Baumfree in Hurley, New York. Isabella began life as a slave and her early life mirrored that of other slaves before emancipation under state law on 4 July 1827, with frequent changes of owners, physical or sexual abuse, and hard work. She married Thomas, also a slave, in 1815, and had five children. Isabella chose to move on after emancipation. After a born-again religious experience, she migrated to New York City and became part of the great religious revival landscape of the nineteenth century, serving as household servant in the homes of several well-known sectarian reformers. Adhering to a series of unorthodox religious societies, such as the Methodist perfectionists and urban missionaries to prostitutes, Isabella was drawn to the millenarian prophet John Mathias. He called himself a traveler, the Spirit of Truth, and became her mentor. After the demise of Mathias and his “kingdom” in 1835, Isabella was charged with attempted poisoning; taking an unlikely step for a free black woman, Isabella sued for libel and won. In 1843 she renamed herself Sojourner Truth – a name with multiple meanings including the integrity of her word or “truth,” and a traveler or “sojourner” – thus, an itinerant preacher.
There are no original manuscripts or primary sources of information. Illiterate, her autobiography The Narrative of Sojourner Truth (1850) was transcribed by a neighbor, Olive Gilbert. Her informal manager, Frances Titus, added the “Book of Life”; a final edition was published after her death, which included “A Memorial Chapter” and Harriet Beecher Stowe's “The Libyan Sibyl” (1884). It is unfortunate that Truth cannot be known through her own voice rather than filtered through that of others. Sojourner has been projected as a symbol for both abolitionists and feminists, with a contrived dialect, or a Southern slave voice. At times she would be presented as more black and less feminist – or not visible, as the suffrage movement became more white. “Truth's memory changed hands.” (Painter 1996, 264)
The significance of her deep religious faith and spirituality has mostly been lost. Perhaps her photographs, promoted to cover travel costs, help present a more authentic picture of the many roles Sojourner Truth played. Also dominant have been the symbolism of her “Ain't I a Woman” speech in Akron, Ohio, in 1851, where she bared her breasts as proof of womanhood, and her famous query “Frederick, Is God Dead?” asked of Frederick Douglass. Her influence as a feminist crusader, notwithstanding a meeting with President Abraham Lincoln, is often overshadowed by that symbolism. A more composite picture would feature Truth as a charismatic and illiterate woman of African descent, born a slave, who traveled as an itinerant preacher supporting, at various times, both women's rights and those of abolitionists. She died at her home in Battle Creek, Michigan on 26 November 1883.