Icons in Black History - Sojourner Truth

Shaneka Malloyd

Sojourner Truth’s legacy as a pioneer in both the women’s rights movement and the anti-slavery movement is well established worldwide. She used her voice to advocate policy for women and Black people. She spoke tirelessly with politicians and appeared at numerous influential conventions to spread awareness and her message. Sojourner’s blunt “tell it like it is” oratory style was particularly effective to influence change and bring attention to her concerns. She was unconventional and daring. Sojourner not only navigated spaces that were unwelcoming to Black women, but she also left an impression in those spaces that continues to shine through nearly two hundred years later. 


Sojourner overcame the brutal realities of chattel slavery. She was born in New York to enslaved parents around 1799. Sojourner reportedly had five children. But, by her own account, she gave birth to thirteen children and her slave masters sold most of them into slavery. New York law mandated Sojourner’s manumission in 1827. Although her owner promised to free her a year earlier he denied granting her emancipation in 1826. This denial emboldened Sojourner to escape the plantation with her youngest daughter. Soon after her escape, she discovered that her five-year old son had been sold to an Alabama slave owner, presumably to evade New York law requiring his manumission at twenty-one years old. Devastated, Sojourner petitioned her former mistress and other individuals for his return. But, all of her requests were denied, as the motherhood of Black women was not a legitimate concern.


Sojourner fought as a fearless advocate for her son’s freedom and the ability to parent. It was a revolutionary endeavor considering that the laws at the time decreed that enslaved women had no enforceable right to care for their children. Enslaved persons also lacked standing in many jurisdictions to bring claims before courts. However, eventually Sojourner’s efforts prevailed and lawyer eventually secured a writ ordering the return of her son back to New York for her custody and care. Fortunately, Sojourner’s advocacy did not stop there, it continued and birthed her quest for equal rights for women and Blacks.


Surpassing illiteracy, Sojourner’s straightforward, plain-spoken, and sincere orations were highly effective. Sojourner’s famous “Ain’t I a Woman” speech was more than a speech supporting the feminist movement of the time. She delivered her speech at the 1851 Women's Rights Convention following speeches from white male religious leaders supporting the subordination of women. More interestingly, she delivered the short and powerful speech under the hesitancy of many white feminists that felt her presence would take away from their cause. It was a direct call-out and criticism of the white male power structure and denial of Black womanhood. It highlighted the intersectionality of being both Black and a woman in a society that considered her to be less than a woman because she was Black and not deserving of basic rights because she was a woman. Unflinching, Sojourner once bore her breasts to emphasize her womanhood. She also challenged anti-slavery discourse for its exclusion of the rights of Black women. Sojourner’s legacy of activism and dedication supersedes her brutal beginnings and her striking influence on feminist and abolitionist policy cannot be denied.