Famous Person: Sojourner Truth
Related Topics: Women's Rights (Suffrage)
Civil Rights (Abolitionism)
Grade Level: 4th/5th
Author: Shelly Nielsen



On a spring day in 1851, a group gathered in a church in Akron, Ohio, for a Women's Rights Conference. They were particularly interested in women's suffrage. On the second day of the conference, many ministers were denying that women had equal rights, and saying that women weren't intelligent enough to vote. One woman stood out very prominently from the rest because she was very tall, attired in Quaker dress, seated obscurely in the front on the pulpit steps, and she was the only black person there. She hadn't said a word on the first day, but on the second day, after hearing so many demeaning remarks about women, she stood up to her full six foot frame, and Mrs. Frances Dana Gage, the white antislavery writer chairing the meeting, allowed her to come to the podium. This was where Sojourner Truth delivered her most famous speech, "A'rn't I a Woman?". (There are different accounts of this speech, two of which are written by Mrs. Gage and the Anti-Slavery Bugle). Below, I will give you the one quoted most often in our day:

That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain't I a woman? 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? I could work as much and eat as much as a man-when I could get it-and bear the lash as well! And ain't I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen them most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain't I a woman? (Hamilton 74).

Sojourner had a deep voice, and a very powerful presence. She was the first prominent African-American directly associated with the white women's suffrage movement. This speech was intended to demonstrate that both poor and black women should also be included under the title of "woman". Along with having a large impact on women's rights, she became one of the most famous abolitionists, singing gospel songs and reciting speeches in churches and auditoriums to primarily white, middle-class audiences. She was a very sought-after orator on the antislavery and women's rights lecture circuits in the 1850s-1870s. She was well known among abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe (who wrote a book about her-The Libyan Sibyl), and Harriet Tubman. She persuaded many who had been passive towards slavery with her inspiring speeches. She began to wear a banner across her chest that said PROCLAIM LIBERTY THROUGH THE LAND UNTO ALL THE INHABITANTS THEREOF. She also gave a very witty speech for civil rights:

Children, I talk to God and God talks to me. I go and talk to God in the fields and woods. This morning I was walking out, and I got over the fence. I saw the wheat a-holding up its head, looking very big. I go up and take hold of it. You believe it? There was no wheat there. I say, "God, what is the matter with this wheat?" And He said to me, "Sojourner, there is a little weevil in it!"
Now I hear talk about the Constitution and the rights of man. I come up and I take hold of this constitution. It looks mighty big and I feel for my rights but there ain't any there.
Then I say, "God, what ails this Constitution?" He says to me, "Sojourner, there is a little weevil in it! (Hamilton 73).

Sojourner was born in 1797 to James and Betsey, slaves of Colonel Ardinburgh, a man of the Low Dutch class of people in Hurley, Ulster County, New York. Her birth name was Isabella Baumfree. The name, "Bomefree", (as she pronounced it) is low Dutch for tree, and came from her father who was very tall and straight. She was separated from her parents when she was nine years old. She was sold to John Nealy for one hundred dollars. The Nealy's could only speak English, and Isabella could only speak Dutch. She received a lot of beatings because she didn't understand their demands. One example of her trials in life follows. One morning she was told to go to the barn and there she was beaten by her master with a bundle of rods that had been in the fire. He tied her hands and beat her until her skin was lacerated and blood flowed from the wounds.

Isabella prayed to be relieved of this situation. A fisherman named Scriver soon came, and bought her for one hundred and five dollars. She lived with him and his family for about a year and a half carrying fish, hoeing corn, and bringing in roots and herbs to make the beer they served at their tavern. In 1810, she was sold to Mr. John J. Dumont. Isabella had a great desire to please Mr. Dumont. While under the ownership of Mr. Dumont, Isabella "married" a fellow bondsman named Thomas and had five children with him. This ceremony was performed by another slave and unrecognized by any civil law. She was a great example of honesty and hard work to her children. She was a field hand, milkmaid, cleaning woman, weaver, cook, and wet nurse (sometimes being required to nurse white babies while hers went hungry).

The State of New York passed a bill (the Emancipation Act of 1827) that stated blacks would be free on July 4, 1827, if they were born before July 4, 1799. Mr. Dumont told Isabella that she would be freed then. One of her hands was diseased, so he refused to free her at the appointed time, saying that her hand had diminished her usefulness. Isabella soon after took her infant, and escaped to Mr. and Mrs. Isaac Van Wagener's. Mr. Dumont was kind and liked Isabella very much. He came looking for her, but Isaac didn't support slavery and didn't want Isabella to be forced to leave, so he paid Mr. Dumont $20 to hire her for one year. Isabella took on the surname, Van Wagener (as was customary for slaves).

Isabella found out that her son, Peter, had been sold South illegally, and she challenged this because she wanted her son very badly. Isabella was the first black woman to sue a white man and win. This is one of the many demonstrations of her courage and determination.

The economy was especially depressed in the late 1830s. Isabella felt that the rich were robbing the poor, and the poor were robbing each other, and she felt that she wasn't being as charitable to the needy as she ought to be. She felt that God had told her to take a new name and preach the truth. On June 1, 1843, she left New York with a new name, Sojourner Truth, ("sojourn" means to wander or travel) to preach what she felt was the truth.

Sojourner was a very courageous, hardworking, determined woman. Her mother had taught her that God lived in the sky and watched over all. If she was ever in trouble or needed help, she only needed to call on God. Her mother had a large impact on her religiously. Sojourner never learned to read and write, but was still an effective speaker. She had heard the Bible a lot, and often quoted from it. Sojourner constantly reminded her audiences that she was an ex-slave and had been raised in a poor, rural community. She experienced many trials in her life including having her children taken from her, being spit on, stoned, beaten, and having her life threatened.

Sojourner dedicated her life to reform. She fought for equal rights as well as women's rights. In addition to this, she helped freed people find better homes after the Civil War. She encouraged the government to make land available to black Southerners. She realized that even after the Civil War (1861-1865) when slaves were freed by the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, blacks still dealt with persecution because of prejudice. This was a struggle for many blacks trying to adapt to newly found freedom in a white world. Sojourner died on November 26, 1883 in Battle Creek, Michigan. The largest crowd ever in attendance to a funeral at the Congregational Church attests to the effect Sojourner Truth had on the lives of so many.


Hamilton, Virginia. (1993). Many Thousand Gone. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, pp.71-76.

Johnson, Paul E. and Sean Wilentz. (1994). The Kingdom of Matthias. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 178-179.

Washington, Margaret, ed. (1993). Narrative of Sojourner Truth. New York: Vintage Books, pp. 1-68.

Yellin, Jean Fagan and John C. Van Horne, ed. (1994). The Abolitionist Sisterhood. New York: Cornell University Press, pp. 139-158.


1. Students will be able to describe contributions made by Sojourner Truth and identify freedoms they enjoy because of the efforts of people like her.
2. Students will be able to state reasons for the decisions they make.
3. Students will be able to define suffrage and abolition by experiencing it and by hearing an explanation of the definition.
4. Students will be able to make a time line of Sojourner Truth's life and the major events of that time.
5. Students will be able to answer questions about Sojourner Truth's life and character.
6. Students will be able to identify a problem in their school or community and take action, so they recognize that they can make a difference as an individual.


Approximately 6-8 class periods


Question cards (Appendix), dice, copies of background information, butcher paper, markers or crayons, Quaker attire (grey dress or robe, white material for turban).


1. Think-Pair-Share: Discuss freedoms we have. Individually have students think of what things they would miss most if their freedom were taken away. Have students share ideas in pairs. As a whole class, list some ideas that were generated. Have class vote on the four most precious or important things .

2. Corners: a) Write the four things on paper and place each in a corner of the room and ask students to decide on which one thing they think is most important, and have them go to that corner. b) In pairs, have them share reasons why they chose that corner. c) Share as a large group, breaking into smaller groups if necessary for more equal distribution. d) Ask a leader to explain group's reasoning. e) Afterwards, ask if anyone changed their view and why.

3. Mini-Lecture: Using background information above, talk about the life of Sojourner Truth and her influence in civil rights and women's suffrage. Define suffrage and abolitionism.

4. Creative Dramatics/Role playing Day: Ask students to choose one of the following three options: 1) Dress as Sojourner and deliver one of her speeches after practicing. 2) Be a "Slave for a Day". Somehow mark their cheek or clothing and have them sit on the floor in the back and do not give them any rights for the day. 3) Role play a woman without voting rights. Present things to be voted on throughout the day, and do not allow these people to vote. After these roles have been played have students write their feelings on paper, then discuss them as a class.

5. Time line: a)Have students count off by fours and assign a corner for each group. b) Supply a copy of the background information, butcher paper, and markers/crayons for each group. c) Ask students to make a time line of Sojourner's life and the major events talked about in their information paper (such as the Civil War, Emancipation Proclamation, and birth/death dates). They may add pictures if desired. d) Hang these around the room and discuss/compare.

6. Turn-2-Think: a) Pass out the set of question cards (see Appendix) to each group of four. b) Have each group count off 1 to 4, and start with person 1 selecting a question card to read aloud. c) All students think of their response, then that same person rolls a die to see who answers (roll again or have volunteers answer if a 5 or 6 is rolled). Continue until all questions are answered.

7. Writing Activity: Give each student paper and have them define suffrage and abolition in their own words. Also have them write one important thing that they learned about Sojourner Truth.

8. Problem-Solving: Have students work in cooperative groups of 4 or 5 to identify a problem in their school or community. Have them come up with a solution, clear it with the teacher, then carry it out. Have a group leader give a brief 1 or 2 minute oral presentation of results.


1. Contributions to Think-Pair-Share and Corners will be assessed informally through observation.
2. Writing activity with definitions will be assessed for understanding.
3. Papers with responses to Role Playing Day will be assessed.
4. Contributions to time line development will be assessed anecdotally along with assessment of accuracy of time line.
5. Observations of responses to Turn-2-Think will be recorded anecdotally.
6. Relevancy of problem identification will be assessed along with an assessment of the oral report.


Questions adapted by Shelly Nielsen from Kagan Cooperative Learning 1993 by Christa Chapman (Prewriting Questions: Biography/Autobiography).

You may want to type these questions on 3 x 3" cards and laminate them for more of a game like activity.


1. How can you best portray the highlight of Sojourner's life? (An item, a word, a slogan, etc.)

2. What descriptive words would you use to describe Sojourner's personality?

3. What do you consider to be Sojourner's greatest accomplishment? Explain.

4. What do you consider to be Sojourner's greatest strength and greatest weakness? Why?

5. Choose a symbol to represent Sojourner. Explain your choice.

6. Who do you think had the greatest impact on Sojourner? Why?

7. How is the physical description of Sojourner important to her life story?

8. How might our world be changed if Sojourner had never existed?

9. What do you think was your subject's biggest challenge?

10. Culture plays a big part in who we are. What part does the cultural background of Sojourner Truth play in her life?

11. For what single action will the subject be most remembered?

12. What do the actions of Sojourner Truth tell you about her morals and values?

13. If the subject had lived in a different country, what may have been different?

14. What slogan might you use to best advertise Sojourner's life story?

15. If Sojourner had not chosen to travel and give speeches, do you think she would have had as much impact on civil and women's rights? Why?