In this lesson, students will learn about Sojourner Truth’s egalitarian spirit in the face of institutional discrimination. After viewing a video about her life, students will examine an 1864 photograph of Truth and read excerpts of her most famous speech. The lesson concludes with students choosing a new name for a current-day exemplar of perseverance.
20 - 40 minutes
- Persevere- to continue in spite of great difficulty
- Marginalized - pushed to the side
- Insurmountable - too great to be overcome
- Prevail - to win
- Plagued - troubled or distressed
Feminism is the belief that women should have political, social, and economic equality to men. Feminists have organized several movements to advocate for women’s rights. The earliest wave of feminism in the United States (circa 1830-1920) focused on women gaining basic legal rights and the franchise. Until the feminist struggle began, the law treated women as essentially belonging to their fathers until they married and came under the authority of their husbands. After many years of struggle, women were given the right to vote when the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920. Feminists today continue to work toward true gender equality.
Learn more about Feminism:
- The Women's Movement [PBS Learning Media]
- Women's Suffrage | Crash Course US History #31 [PBS Learning Media]
The Abolitionist Movement was comprised of organized groups of white and black people who sought to end slavery prior to the Civil War. The movement used a wide variety of strategies and approaches to convince others to either free the enslaved and to work toward a permanent ban of the institution of slavery in the United States. Women played a major role in this movement.
Learn more about The Abolitionist Movement:
- AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: The Abolitionists [PBS Learning Media]
- Teaching and Learning About Abolitionists | The Abolitionists [PBS Learning Media]
Background on Sojourner Truth | Abolitionist and Women’s Rights Activist
Before the Civil War, enslaved women were often forced into arranged marriages with enslaved men, and had to bear children only to have them taken away and sold, never to be seen again. Escaping slavery was a difficult and dangerous endeavor—and a successful escape was no guarantee of safety or freedom.
Sojourner Truth’s birth name was Isabella Baumfree. She was born in Ulster County, New York, around 1797, and was first sold at the age of nine. Permanently separated from her family and speaking only Dutch, she endured harsh treatment from her new English-speaking owners because she couldn’t understand their commands. She learned the new language quickly. Coerced into a marriage to an older enslaved man, she bore several children.
After her owner went back on a promise to emancipate her, Truth escaped with her infant daughter. One year later, in 1827, the state of New York emancipated all enslaved persons. Living as a free woman, Truth went to court to fight for her five-year old son, who had been sold illegally to a plantation owner in Alabama. In one of the first cases where a black woman successfully challenged a white man, Truth succeeded in regaining custody of her son.
In 1829, Truth moved to New York City, where she worked as a housekeeper for 14 years. In 1842, her son, a worker on a whaling ship, failed to return from a voyage; she never heard from him again. After this loss, she devoted her life to fighting for abolition and equal rights. On June 1, 1843, she officially changed her name from Isabella Baumfree to Sojourner Truth; Sojourner means “traveler.” Her chosen name represented her life: a traveler who preaches her truth. With this new name, she set off to tour the country, giving speeches about justice and equality.
In 1844, she joined a self-sufficient community in Massachusetts called the Northampton Association of Education and Industry. There, she met many leading abolitionists. In 1850, a memoir of her life was published: The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave. She began to tour regularly, becoming an abolitionist leader. She gave her famous “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in 1851. Given without notes or preparation, the speech stands out to this day as a forceful and inspiring recognition of women’s capabilities and a demand for their equal standing in American society.
Truth fought for black rights and women’s rights unwaveringly, chastising the abolitionist community when it failed to advocate for black women to the extent that it advocated for black men. She saw achieving women’s suffrage to be essential in the fight for equality, and would not settle to see black men on equal footing as white men, only to leave women without voting rights.
Once the Civil War began, Truth helped recruit free black men for the Union army. She met and spoke to President Lincoln about her experiences and beliefs. Even after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, Truth continued to demand change. She rode in white-designated streetcars in Washington to force desegregation; she even fought for the federal government to grant land to former slaves.
On November 26, 1883, Truth died in her home in Michigan. Until the end of her life, she spoke on behalf of the less privileged and was never satisfied with the status quo. She is remembered today as one of the nation’s first feminists and foremost abolitionists.
A sojourner is a person who resides temporarily in a place. Abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth chose her own name. Why do you think she might have described herself as a “sojourner” and what truth do you think she may have wanted to share?
Introduce Sojourner Truth:
During an era in which both racism and sexism were the norm in this country, a woman who named herself Sojourner Truth insisted that black people should be treated as the equals of whites and that women deserved the same rights as men.
Video and Class Discussion (10 minutes)
Distribute the Graphic Organizer for students to fill out while viewing the video.
Discussion questions after viewing:
1. What are examples of Sojourner Truth showing perseverance? What do you think motivated this perseverance?
2. Sojourner Truth named herself; do you think she actually lived up to the name as a traveling preacher of her truth?
Examining Primary Sources
Visual Primary Source Activity (5 minutes)
Project or make copies of the image to the right. This is one of several different versions of cards (known by the French term, “cartes de visite”) that Sojourner Truth created in order to sell to supporters to raise funds for the causes she believed in and to support her life as an itinerant speaker. Although it is unclear whether Sojourner Truth coined the phrase at the bottom of the photo card, she was vigilant in maintaining control of her photographic image because she knew that selling these cards could provide significant funds to support her work for women’s and African American rights.
The photograph was taken in 1864 and was produced using the albumen printing process that made mass production of such photo “cartes de visite” much more affordable than had been possible previously. This card is from the National Gallery of Art; however, copies of this and similar photo cards are currently in the collections of the Library of Congress, the National Portrait Gallery, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
- What do you think is meant by the phrase at the bottom of the photograph, “I sell the shadow to support the substance”? (NOTE: Photographers of this period often referred to a subject’s captured image as the “shadow”. )
- Photos such as this one were carefully planned and posed. Why do you think Sojourner Truth chose to be shown knitting in this photograph?
- What words would you use to describe the expression on Sojourner Truth’s face in this photo? What do you notice about her hands?
Written Primary Source Activity (15 minutes)
This can be done as an in-class follow-up to the lesson, as a homework assignment or as a multi-day in-class project.
To be completed using the Graphic Organizer.
First, review what students have learned about Sojourner Truth to uncover in which ways she truly did persevere to become a preacher of her truth. Students should note both the hardships she overcame and the contributions she made to the fight for equality. Then, have students choose someone who is a current hero of theirs who has also shown perseverance--they can choose a political leader, a family member, and athlete, an entertainer, a community member, etc. They should create a new name for this person based on the reasons they admire this individual and, in writing, explain their choice.