Northampton Worth Fighting For: Sojourner Truth

From “Who was Sojourner Truth?” at

Sojourner Truth came to Northampton in 1843 to live at the Northampton Association of Education and Industry, a utopian community in Florence. Born a slave in upstate New York in approximately 1797, she labored for a succession of five masters until the Fourth of July, 1827, when slavery was finally abolished in New York State. Then Isabella–as she had been named at birth–became legally free.

After prevailing in a courageous court action demanding the return of her youngest son Peter, who had been illegally sold away from her to a slave owner in Alabama, Isabella moved to New York City. There she worked as a housekeeper and became deeply involved in religion. Isabella had always been very spiritual, and soon after being emancipated, had a vision which affected her profoundly, leading her–as she later described it–to develop a “perfect trust in God and prayer.”

After fifteen years in New York, Isabella felt a call to become a travelling preacher. She took her new name–Sojourner Truth–and with little more than the clothes on her back, began walking through Long Island and Connecticut, speaking to people in the countryside about her life and her relationship with God. She was a powerful speaker and singer. When she rose to speak, wrote one observer, her commanding figure and dignified manner hushed every trifler to silence. Audiences were melted into tears by her touching stories.

After several months of traveling, Truth was encouraged by friends to go to the Northampton Association, which had been founded in 1841 as a cooperative community dedicated to abolitionism, pacifism, equality and the betterment of human life. There, she met progressive thinkers like William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass and David Ruggles, and the local abolitionists Samuel Hill, George Benson and Olive Gilbert. Douglass described her at the time as “a strange compound of wit and wisdom, of wild enthusiasm and flintlike common sense.”

When the association disbanded in 1846, Truth remained in Northampton, moving for the first time into her own home, on Park Street in Florence, with a loan from Samuel Hill. Although Truth never learned to read or write, she dictated her memoirs to Olive Gilbert and they were published in 1850 as The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave. This book, and her presence as a speaker, made her a sought-after figure on the anti-slavery woman’s rights lecture circuit.

Over the next decade she travelled and spoke widely. She is particularly remembered for the famous “Ain’t I A Woman?” speech she gave at the woman’s rights convention in Akron, Ohio in 1851….

6 thoughts on “Northampton Worth Fighting For: Sojourner Truth

  1. It’s ironic that you post an article on your website about Sojourner Truth. Did you know that under present laws, Truth would have been subject to arrest for her actions at many of her speeches, since she frequently bared her breasts to prove to the audience that she was a woman? To put it another way, the restrictions you’re proposing would have prevented Truth from speaking in public.

  2. I admit that NPN was unaware of this fact about Sojourner Truth. However, we believe our proposed regulations would not affect this kind of expression at all. Our proposed zoning law is aimed at sexually oriented businesses–commercial enterprises that use sex to make a profit. Correct me if I’m wrong, but since Sojourner Truth was not running an Adult Bookstore, an Adult Motion Picture Theatre, an Adult Paraphernalia Store, an Adult Video Store, or an Adult Entertainment Establishment, and since she maintained no private porn viewing booths, our proposals would not apply to her.

    To raise a more current concern, we don’t want our proposals to affect artistic expression at Smith College or elsewhere in Northampton. Regulations similar to ours have been enacted elsewhere in Massachusetts, and we are unaware of cases where they were abused to unreasonably constrain political or artistic expression.

    That being said, if changes to our proposals would ease people’s concerns, we welcome suggestions.

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