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Once there was a girl whose powerful voice would inspire people to fight for equality. Her name was Isabella Baumfree, but we know her now as Sojourner Truth. She was a Black woman born into slavery in Dutch-speaking rural New York in 1797. She escaped to freedom after nearly 30 years of being enslaved, was one of the first Black women to successfully sue a white man, and later changed her name to Sojourner, becoming a abolitionist and suffragist fighting for equality and women’s rights.
Organizer and trainer D’atra “Dee Dee” Jackson is Co-Founder of the Durham Chapter of Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100). Dee Dee has had her hand in efforts and actions such as bringing Participatory Budgeting to Durham, Justice for Reefa campaign, and Black Mama’s/Black August Bail Outs. Now, as the National Director of BYP100, she dreams of freedom, Black worlds, and building a movement of ungovernable and strategic lovers of Black liberation.
D’atra Jackson Once there was a girl whose powerful voice would inspire people to fight for equality. Her name was Isabella Baumfree, but we know her now as Sojourner Truth.
We don’t know exactly when Isabella was born, but we think it was around 1797, when John Adams was President of the United States.
Life was hard for Isabella and her family. In the 1790’s Black people were treated like property, and forced to work as slaves for no pay. They had no voice — no say — in their lives. But Isabella’s mother – who everyone called Mau-Mau Bet — knew how to put a light in her children’s eyes. At night, when their work was done, Mau-Mau Bet would sit with them in the quiet darkness and point to the stars.
“My children,” Mau-Mau Bet would say. “There is a God in the sky, and he hears you and sees you.” She told them…”if you need help…ask Him…”
These words of hope lit a spark in Isabella, and they would change her life forever.
Jackson I’m D’atra Jackson. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.
A fairy tale podcast about the rebel women who inspire us.
In this episode, we meet Sojourner Truth, a former enslaved woman who spoke up for freedom and equality.
Jackson Isabella didn’t live with her father and Mau-Mau Bet for very long. When she was about 9 years old, she was sold, along with a flock of sheep, for 100 dollars to a man named John Nealy. Mr. Nealy and his wife did not speak Dutch, and Isabella did not speak English. The Nealies were cruel and they punished Isabella for making mistakes because she could not understand their commands.
In those impossible moments, when she was sad and afraid, Isabella remembered Mau-Mau Bet, and the lesson she had taught her under the stars…
There is a God in the sky, and he hears you and sees you. When you need help, ask him.
A few months later, a man named Scriver came walking up the road. He asked Isabella if she would like to come live with him and his family.
Her prayers had been answered! She was finally free of cruel Mr. and Mrs. Nealy.
Life with the Scrivers was wild… They were messy and rude and they cursed a lot, but they were also kind to her. Mr. Scriver owned a busy tavern where people would drink beer and get rowdy. Isabella spent her days wandering in the woods, digging around for roots so Mr. Scriver could make his beer. Then he’d send her to town to fetch him liquor and molasses for the tavern. Isabella liked living with the Scrivers… but her life was about to change again.
Jackson Isabella spent about a year and a half at the Scrivers, before they – like the Nealies – sold her to another family. It is terrible to think about, isn’t it? The idea of a human being sold.
This new family was The Dumonts. The family and some of the white servants in the house were cruel to Isabella.
For instance – one of Isabella’s jobs was to fry up potatoes for breakfast for the family. A white servant called Kate would intentionally dump ashes into her dish of potatoes, trying to get Isabella in trouble! Luckily, Gertrude, the Dumont’s daughter, saw what happened and stood up for her.
And the Dumont’s were slave owners. They controlled all aspects of Isabella’s life – including who she married.
Isabella had fallen in love with another enslaved man named Robert. They met in secret and talked about getting married. But Robert’s owners were against the idea and both of them were forced to marry other people.
None of this felt right to Isabella. She knew her worth…and knew that one day, she would be free.
Jackson As the years went by, more people began standing up against slavery. It was wrong to own another human being and force them to spend their lives as property working for no pay. Politicians in New York had been trying to abolish slavery in the state, but it took a long time. The government set a date — July 4, 1827 — for all the enslaved people in New York to be freed.
Mr. Dumont told Isabella he would let her go free a year early. Isabella had been enslaved for nearly 30 years. Freedom was within reach! But Mr. Dumont went back on his word and refused to let Isabella go.
She knew she had the right to be free. Slavery was going to be illegal in New York very soon. She resolved to run away – but how? Later, Isabella would say she was afraid to leave at night, but she was also afraid to walk away in broad daylight. So…she left at dawn.
In the moments between light and dark, Isabella packed her belongings. Everything she owned fit into a single cotton handkerchief. While everyone in the house slept, Isabella gathered her infant daughter, and opened the door of the Dumont’s home, listening for footsteps or voices. She took one step, and then another, and another… and she kept right on walking down the dusty dirt road. Isabella was free!
Jackson After her escape from slavery, Isabella was taken in by family of Quakers, the Van Wageners. Quakers are a religious group that fought against slavery. Mr. Dumont did come looking for her but when Isabella and the Van Wageners stood up to him and offered to buy her freedom – he accepted and went home.
Then, Isabella heard some disturbing news. The Dumont’s had SOLD her son, Peter, to a farmer in Alabama. Isabella knew it was illegal to sell a slave across state lines, so she marched right over to the Dumont’s house to confront them.
Mrs. Dumont told her she was making a big deal out of nothing! Isabella realized the Dumonts were not going to follow the law, so she took the law into her OWN hands.
She took that Alabama slave owner to court!
She pushed through the crowds at the courthouse and stood before the grand jury of white men. Standing tall, Isabella reminded these white men of the law of the land. Some of them laughed at her — this former slave — who wanted her son back. Others – including one of the jurors – found her argument very convincing. He even recommended a lawyer who would eventually help her get her son back.
It was an exceptional moment — Isabella was one of the first Black women to challenge a white man in a United States court… and win.
Jackson Isabella continued to create the life she wanted for herself. At nearly 6 feet tall, and with a powerful presence and a strong voice, she captured peoples’ attention. On June First, 1843, she changed her name to Sojourner Truth — “sojourner” is another word for “traveler.”
She left New York and headed for Massachusetts. She preached at big outdoor camp meetings where people stayed in tents under the stars.
One night, a group of more than 100 men were yelling and causing trouble, and threatening to burn down the tents. Everyone was terrified. Sojourner knew she had to do something, but what? She found a calm in her heart and began to sing in her deep, powerful voice, a song about God. Her voice carried through the camp… stronger and stronger. The group of men with their sticks and torches rushed towards her.
“Sing for us a little longer and we’ll go,” they told her. Sojourner’s voice could change people!
Jackson In Massachusetts, Sojourner Truth found kindred spirits in other abolitionists, like Frederick Douglass, who was also a former enslaved man, and William Lloyd Garrison, a journalist.
One day, Sojourner met a white woman named Olive Gilbert. Olive thought Sojourner’s story needed to be written down so people everywhere could learn about her struggles… and her many victories! But Sojourner had not had the opportunity to learn to read or write.
So she told Olive everything she’d lived through, and Olive wrote it all down in a book. She called the book “The Narrative of Sojourner Truth.” It was Sojourner’s life story, but it also told the story of so many more that were enslaved across the country.
But, Sojourner’s story did not change the fact that racism persisted. And women were still unable to vote and fully participate in our government.
The following year, Sojourner was at a woman’s rights meeting in Ohio. When it was time for her to speak, there was a great ruckus! Some women in the audience didn’t think a Black woman should be allowed to speak at their meeting. The woman leading the meeting called for everyone to please, please, just be silent for a moment!
And then Sojourner stepped up, and asked a powerful question: If a man has rights that a woman wants, why not give them to HER too?
It is said that she asked the audience:
Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman?
We will never know exactly what she said that day, but we know that she called for equality for EVERY woman. This speech made Sojourner famous as a civil rights leader.
Jackson Throughout the Civil War in the 1860’s, Sojourner did what she could to help the Northern effort that was fighting to end slavery. She urged young men to join the fight, and she collected food and clothing for the troops.
When the war was over in 1865, thousands of people were freed. It was time to rebuild cities… and lives. But many enslaved people had never known anything else, and it was a frightening time for them.
Sojourner knew what they were going through — she had gone through the same thing when she had escaped from the Dumont’s house at the break of dawn… all those years ago. She started working as a counselor, helping formerly enslaved people create new lives for themselves.
As long as people were struggling against inequality, Sojourner would use her experience, her voice, and her influence to help them.
Jackson Sojourner Truth died at her home in Michigan when she was about 86 years old. Her life is a story of struggle and incredible accomplishment. At a time when few Black people had a voice, she was traveling around the country, speaking to audiences large and small.
Flipping through the pages of our nation’s history books, we find her in New York, Massachusetts, Ohio, Michigan, and Washington D.C., using her power and presence to influence and educate.
We can still learn from Sojourner because many people wrote about her and the causes she stood up for. We can still find traces of her across the United States, where people have created memorials and statues to honor her life’s work. And we can still be inspired by her strength, her sense of justice, and her courage to fight for what is right.
This podcast is a production of Rebel Girls, based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. Our Executive Producers are Jes Wolfe and Katie Sprenger.
This episode was produced by Isaac Kaplan-Woolner, written by Gina Gotsill, with sound design and mixing by Luis Miranda.
Corinne Peterson is Production Manager, and Ariana Rosas is Proofreader. Original theme music by Elettra Bargiacchi. For more, visit Rebel Girls dot com.