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Sojourner Truth was born in 1797 as Isabella “Belle” Baumfree (Bomfree), one at least 10 children born to James and Elizabeth Baumfree. The Baumfrees were slaves to Colonel Hardenbergh and lived on his estate near Esopus, New York. After Hardenbergh died in 1806, Belle was sold several times, ending up with John Dumont. She married another slave named Thomas and had five children, one fathered by Dumont because of a rape.

In 1799, the State of New York began to abolish slavery, but it wouldn’t be complete until July 4, 1827. Dumont promised Belle her freedom, but never let her go, so in 1826, she escaped with her infant daughter, Sophia. She worked as a housekeeper and later rescued her son, Peter, suing the slave owner in court.

In 1843, Belle became a member of the Methodist church. God came to her and told her she must preach the truth. She changed her name to Sojourner Truth and lectured on abolitionism, women’s rights, religious tolerance, and pacifism. In a letter from Cora LV Scott to Amy Post, she described Sojourner’s lectures as “…pearls cast from the crown of Truth …the world will long remember her when other names are forgotten.”

In 1856, Sojourner made another big change. She had become fascinated by Spiritualism and sold all her possessions in 1857 to move to the village of Harmonia near Battle Creek, Michigan. As she continued with her lectures, they were now more than political stances, they were inspired teachings.

The Battle Creek area was a meeting place for all types for progressive thinkers at the time. Hicksite Quakers accepted Spiritualism and formed the community that was soon home to Swedenborgians and Universalists. Reynolds and Dorcas Cornell, founding members of Battle Creek’s Hicksite Meeting who were practicing Spiritualists, incorporated the Village of Harmonia in 1855. Their son, Hiram, founded the Bedford Harmonial Institute in 1851.

Andrew Jackson Davis traveled to Harmonia to speak about his Harmonial Philosophy. They hosted the Michigan Annual meeting of Progressive Friends. The village was also home to ex-U.S. Senator Nathanial Tallmadge, and Spiritualist lecturer and Fourierist, Warren Chase.

Sojourner lived in the village from 1857 to 1867, before relocating to nearby Battle Creek. During the 1870s, she remained politically active, trying to secure land grants for former slaves from the Federal government. She met with President Ulysses S. Grant and actively supported his reelection. She even tried to vote for him but was turned away.

Sojourner was nearly deaf and blind toward the end of her life. She never learned to read or write, but her lectures helped change the cultural fabric of the United States. She died in 1883.

Additional Reading:

Irvin Painter, Nell (1996). Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Co.

Johnson, Paul E.; Wilentz, Sean (1994). The Kingdom of Matthias: A Story of Sex and Salvation in 19th-Century America. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

Wilson, Brian C. (2013) “The Battle for Battle Creek: Sectarian Competition in the Yankee West.” Quaker Theology. Vol 23, Summer-Fall

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