Jackson Creek Middle School
American Heroes: Sojourner Truth
Sometime during 1797, James ( a.k.a. Baumfree) and Betsey (a.k.a. Mau Mau Bett) Van Wagner gave birth to a baby girl named Isabella Van Wagener. Later in her life, Isabella changed her name to Sojourner Truth. She changed her name to Sojourner Truth because Sojourner means traveler or spreader and she felt that she was the spreader of truth.Sojourner Truth did a lot of great things for our country.
Sojourner was born on a plantation. Her master was Colonel Johannes Hardenbergh. He was one of the wealthiest landowners in Ulster County, New York. Sojourner was one of eleven kids. Out of all the children, she was the only one who remained on the plantation. All of her brothers and sisters had either been sold or had died from diseases.
When she was little, the first lesson her parents taught her was obedience. Along with obedience, they taught her the importance of honesty, hard work, loyalty, and to suffer silently. Her parents told her that if she did not follow these standards that she could be beaten or sold off.
When Sojourner was three, her master died and the estate was taken over by his son, Charles. Soon after Charles inherited the plantation, he moved everything, the slaves and the livestock, to his plantation down the road.
At the new plantation, Charles crammed twelve slaves into one small room with no privacy. The rooms had bad ventilation, bad lighting, and the only windows they had were small slits in the walls. During the summer months, the slaves usually slept outside since it was so hot and humid in the room. During the winter months the slaves usually did not sleep that much since they were trying to keep warm all the time. During the night, they would all huddle around a small fire for warmth. Along with all the other bad accommodations, the slaves had to use hard board planks for beds.
Right after they all moved into the cellar at the new plant ation, Sojourner's brother, Pete, was born. The children grew up listening to stories told by their mother. One night their mother told them a very sad story about Michael and Nancy, two of her older children that were sold. The Sojourner tells the story like this:
" One morning, Michael and Nancy had awoken to the sound of sleigh bells. The children had run out into the snow to see the big horse that pulled the sleigh. Meanwhile the driver had gone inside. After a while, he had come out with Master Hardenbergh. Mau Mau Bett's worst fear had been realized. Her children had been sold. Michael and Nancy didn't know it yet. Michael saw the man pull Nancy up on the sleigh. How wonderful, the boy thought, Nancy was getting a ride. But to the boy's horror, he saw his sister shoved into a box and the lid shut and locked. Michael ran to hide. He cried and begged not to be taken away. But Mau Mau Bett and Baumfree had been unable to help them. My mother mourned for her lost children all the days of her life." (p.)
When Sojourner was eleven her master, Charles Hardenbergh, became very ill. When the slaves heard that he was dying, they all gathered together and prayed that he would get better. The slaves did not know what they would do if he died. They really liked him because he kept the families together the best he could and never beat anybody. Charles ended up dying and all the slaves were very sad.
After Charles died, all of his slaves and livestock were sold. At the auction, nobody wanted Sojourner so they had to throw in a flock of sheep to sell her. The Neely family bought her. The Neely family had just come to America from England. They owned a little store in Ron dout Creek, New York. Mrs. Neely tried to teach Sojourner to speak English, but every time Sojourner would say a word wrong, Mrs. Neely would slap her.
One day, Mrs. Neely sent Sojourner out to the barn where Mr. Neely was waiting for her. Mr. Neely tore the back of her shirt off. Mr. Neely then took hot rods and beat her until she fainted.
Mrs. Neely kept trying to teach her words, but she just did not understand. Soon Sojourner started doing chores without being asked so the Neely's would not complain. After a long time, she learned to speak English.
After Sojourner had been at the Neely's for a while, she really started to wonder if she would ever see her family again. When she was about to give up, one winter day her dad came and visited her. He was very old and sick. He told her about his new owners. When her father got up to leave, he gave her a hug, but she pulled away. When they were outside the house by the gate, she showed him her back. He was sad and mad all at the same time. He was mad because she had been beaten so badly and he was sad because they could not do anything about it. Before he left, he promised her that he would try to help her get away from that evil place. He kept his promise. He convinced his new owners to buy her from the Neely's for $105.
Her new owners were the Schryvers. While she was living and working for the Schryvers, she got word that Mau Mau Bett and Baumfree had died. This was really hard not only because they were her parents, but because they were the only family left that she knew. Sojourner did not stay long with the Schryvers. One day a man by the name of James Dumont came to the farm and offered $300 for Sojourner. The Schyvers accepted the price and she was moved once again.
Mr. Dumont was a very nice man. He believed in not splitting up families and if you do your work without trouble then he would not beat you. Mrs. Dumont on the other hand was very sour and coarse. She always enjoyed making fun of Sojourner and sabotaging her chores. She also told all the white housemaids to give Sojourner harder chores and to be really mean to her.
One of the tricks the maids would play on her was when she would make potatoes for dinner. They would put ashes in the clean water and when Mrs. Dumont would find the ashes, she would yell and hit Sojourner. Finally, one day Gertrude , Mr. and Mrs. Dumont's daughter, took Sojourner aside and told her that she had seen the maid putting the ashes into the water. They made a plan to catch the maid. The next time Sojourner made potatoes, they caught the maid in action. Gertrude went and told her mom and dad. Her mom of course denied the maid doing this since she had hired her. Mr. Dumont proved her wrong and Sojourner's name was cleared.
While Sojourner was staying with the Dumont's, she figured that Mr. Dumont was a god. She thought this because he was always right about everything and he was always giving people wise advice. Sojourner was also his favorite slave. He would always brag about her to his friends saying that she could do the whole family's washing in one night. He also bragged about how she had taught herself the little English that she knew.
All this bragging did not go over well with the slaves. The slaves started calling her the "white people's nigger". She didn't understand why everyone was so upset with her. Then the Dumont's driver, Cato, took her aside and told her that if she kept working so hard then the master might expect all the other slaves to work as hard. She learned a lot from Cato. She learned that God does not just make things better right away. He studies the situation then decides whether he should help or stay back. This made her realize that John Dumont was not a god after all.
Sojourner married a man named Tom. Tom was also a slave on Dumont's farm. Even though Sojourner and Tom were not in love, Dumont made them marry each other. Sojourner told Dumont that if she were going to get married, then she would want a real preacher. So Dumont arranged a legal marriage for her and Tom.
In 1817, a law was passed in New York that changed her life forever. The law stated that any slave born before 1799 would be freed. On July 4, 1827, all slaves over the age of twenty- eight had to be freed. This meant that in ten years she would be free!
Also eight years after the law was passed, Dumont came up to Sojourner while she was working and told her that since she had worked so hard for fifteen years that he would free her one year before the law said she had to be freed. He also said that he would free Tom with her and allow them to live in a little cabin he owned down the road.
That next spring while Sojourner was working, she cut her hand on a scythe. Even though her hand hurt all the time and would bleed all the time, she never stopped working. No matter how much it hurt, she never missed a day of work. This cut would ruin everything for her later in her life.
Later that next year,Tom and Sojourner waited for the master to free them. Dumont did not say a word about setting them free. Finally, one day she went up to Dumont and asked her why they hadn't been freed. He just said that the deal was off and that she needed to go back to work. She did not understand why Dumont was not keeping his word, so she demanded that he tell her why he would not free her. He told her that he could not believe that she had put in any extra work since her hand was hurt.
Sojourner could not handle the fact that her master had broken his word. So she went back to her house and gathered her five children (Diana, Elizabeth, Hannah, Peter, and Sophia). She told them that Dumont had broken his word and that even though he never said she was free, she was leaving anyway. She promised that she would be back for them and Tom some day. Tom tried to talk her out of it, but it was no use. As she was leaving the plantation, she thought about Sophia, the baby, that was still nursing. She went back and took her with her.
During her journey, Sojourner stayed with a Quaker family. The Van Wagener's offered for Sojourner and her baby to stay and eat in their house. In return, Sojourner had to do a couple of small chores a day. The second day Sojourner and Sophia were at the Van Wagener's, Dumont came looking for his runaway slave. When Dumont saw Sojourner there, he demanded that she come back home with him. The Van Wagener's enjoyed having Sojourner and Sophia at their house that they bought Sojourner for $20 and Sophia for $5. After Dumont left, the Van Wagener's freed Sojourner and Sophia. Even though she was free, she stayed with the Van Wagener's through the winter.
During that winter, Mr. Van Wagener told Sojourner that Peter had been sold to a wealthy Alabama plantation. This was very bad news because Alabama was a "slave for life" state. Sojourner was so mad about this sale that she took it to court. She went to court to gain custody of Peter. She won her case and Peter came and lived with his mom and sister at the Van Wagener's house.
Soon after this event, Sojourner moved her family to Kingston. While in Kingston, Sojourner got a job at a linen factory. Peter stayed in Kingston with his mom, but Sophia went and lived with Diana, Hannah, and Elizabeth who still lived on the Dumont's farm.
On July 4, 1828, Tom was set free. Since he and Sojourner did not live near each other, they grew apart. Tom never really got his life back on track and he grew sick and died before the year was over.
One day, Sojourner got horrible news that Eliza Fowler, the Van Wagener's cousin, had been beaten to death by her husband. This was very hard for both Sojourner and Peter because Eliza had helped Peter heal his wounds after he had been beaten.
Sojourner wanted more then ever to bring all her children back together. So, they left Kingston and went back to live with the Van Wagener's for a bit. While she lived with the Van Wagener's, she and the Dumont's became friends again. She would go and visit her daughters all the time.
Sojourner followed her dream and got all her children together again. It did not last long. Peter never fully recovered emotionally.
In 1843, Sojourner told everyone that God told her to change her name from Isabella Van Wager to Sojourner Truth. She said He told her to pick this name because Sojourner means traveler and she traveled around spreading the truth about slavery. During the Civil War she sang and raised money for black soldiers.
All through her life, Sojourner was an abolitionist against slavery. She spoke in front of Congress and two presidents. The speech she is best remembered for is a speech she gave at a women's rights conference She decided to speak because she noticed that no one was addressing black women.
"Dat man ober dar say dat womin needs to be helped over carriages, and lifted ober dicthes and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody eber helps me into carriages, or ober muddpuddles, or bigs me any best place. And ain't I a woman? Look at me Looka at me arm. I have ploughes and planted and gathered into barns, and no mand could head me! And ain't I a woman."
This is part of the speech she gave at a women's rights conference. She spoke at many other press conferences and political meetings. She led a very productive and successful life.
Last updated: 01/03/02