Sojourner Truth: How the Enslaved Woman of a Dutch-New York Family Became an Icon of America’s Black Liberation Movement
On 31 March 1817, the New York legislature decided that enslavement within its borders had to come to an end. Final emancipation would occur on 4 July 1827. Coincidentally, the date of choice was almost exactly two centuries after the Dutch West India Company’s yacht Bruynvisch arrived at Manhattan on 29 August 1627. The ship transported the first group of enslaved Africans to New Amsterdam and thus introduced the institution of enslavement into what is now New York State. One of the enslaved women emancipated two hundred years later was Isabella Van Wagenen, better known under the name she chose for herself: Sojourner Truth.
It is little known that Sojourner Truth (c. 1797-1883), one of the icons of America’s Black Liberation Movement, was a native speaker of Dutch. In her famous Narrative (1850), she identified herself as “the daughter of James and Betsey, slaves of one Colonel Ardinburgh, Hurley, Ulster County, New York,” who “belonged to that class of people called Low Dutch.”
The latter refers to descendants of seventeenth-century inhabitants of New Netherland, who remained in America after the English takeover in 1664. Many of them held on to their Dutch identity for several generations. This was, in particular, the case in the New York Hudson Valley, where Peter Kalm, a Swedish traveller, observed in 1749 that almost all people “speak Dutch, have Dutch preachers, and divine service is performed in that language; their manners are likewise quite Dutch.”
Map of the Mid-Hudson Valley, showing the village of Hurley, where Sojourner Truth was born, 1779 © National Archives of the Netherlands
One of the Dutch New Yorkers was Truth’s owner Johannes Hardenbergh (1729-1799), whose grandfather, also called Johannes Hardenbergh (1670–1745), provided the basis of the family’s wealth by acquiring a tract of two million acres of land in the Catskill Mountains from the indigenous Esopus. The latter’s son, also called Johannes Hardenbergh (1706–1786), had added prestige to this wealth by serving as an officer under George Washington in the Continental Army and later joining New York’s Colonial Assembly.
The importance of the Dutch religion to the Hardenbergh family accounts for the fact that the latter was a founding trustee of Queen’s College (today’s Rutgers), the Dutch Reformed response to the founding of the (Presbyterian) College of New Jersey (today’s Princeton) and the (Episcopalian) King’s College (today’s Columbia).
Home of Johannes Hardenbergh, photo taken from the book 'History of New Paltz New York and Its Old Families' by Ralph LeFevre, published in 1909 © State University of New York at New Paltz, Sojourner Truth Library
With Hardenbergh in Hurley
The family’s Christian zeal did not imply opposition to slavery. The 1790 census of the town of Hurley lists Johannes Hardenbergh as the owner of seven enslaved people, which made him one of the largest slaveholders in the region. Among them were the parents of Sojourner Truth, then still called Belle, short for Isabella, who, born circa 1797, grew up in an entirely Dutch-speaking environment. Significantly, when she was sold at the age of nine to the English-speaking Nealy family, Isabella had tremendous difficulties understanding her new owners.
In her Narrative, she complained that “if they sent me for a frying pan, not knowing what they meant, perhaps I carried them the pot hooks and trammels.” Apparently, she did not learn much English during the short time she spent with the Nealies, because the daughter of John Dumont, the slaveholder who bought her around 1810, recalled that upon arrival “she could neither talk nor understand anything but low or Holland Dutch.”
Sojourner Truth in 1870 © National Portrait Gallery, Washington
Although she later became fluent in English, Truth is known to have kept a strong Dutch accent all her life and when she later recalled her mother’s reaction to the news that her daughter would be sold, she accidentally slipped back into her mother tongue: “My poor mother would weep and say: ‘Oh! Mein Got, mein Got, my children will be sold into slavery!’”
Truth’s case was not exceptional. Graham Hodges and Alan Brown’s anthology of runaway advertisements from New York and New Jersey, dating from 1716 until 1783, includes 186 references to Black fugitives who spoke English, while 58 of them spoke Dutch. Although those who spoke Dutch were mostly bilingual, several of them had, like Isabella, difficulties making themselves understood in English. A man called Cyrus, for instance, only spoke “Dutch and very bad English,” while a certain Adonia spoke “pretty good Low Dutch” but “little English.”
Some African Americans preserved an emotional attachment to the Dutch language after abolition. When interviewed in the early twentieth century, an elderly Black person with roots in the Hudson Valley recalled that his ancestors, “were Dutch and proud of it” and that his “Aunt Sebania” told him “about her great-grandmother, a stern old lady who both spoke and understood English, but who refused to speak it except in the privacy of her home. In public, she spoke Dutch, as any proper person should do, a dignified language.”
Such statements should be treated with caution, since they could transmit the false impression that slavery among the Dutch was a benign system. It is not difficult to find examples of racism and cruel punishments in Dutch-American circles. In August 1885, for instance, the Troy Daily Times quoted from an eighteenth-century report about the heavily Dutch Bergen County, where “two slaves were subjected to 500 lashes each … for an assault upon a man” until “one of the slaves died.” The report also referred to a bill “for wood carted for burning two Negroes” and mentioned that, by the late nineteenth century, older people in the region still remembered “the burning of two Negroes at the other side of the Hackensack.”
Dutch-American farmers were among the fiercest opponents of John Jay’s Gradual Emancipation Law that would free all enslaved children born after July 4, 1799, and accused the New York governor of wanting “to rob every Dutchman of the property … most dear to his heart, his slaves.” Delaware County politician Erastus Root recalled, with reference to this debate, that “the slaveholders at that time were chiefly Dutch. They raved and swore dunder and blitzen that we were robbing them of their property.”
Once it became clear that abolition was inevitable, some Dutch-American slaveholders attempted to talk their enslaved workers into deals that kept them in bondage for as long as possible. Dumont, for instance, promised Isabella her freedom if she agreed to work for one more year. At the year’s end, however, he broke his word. Isabella reacted by fleeing the house with her youngest daughter. She found rescue with another Dutch-American family, the Van Wagenens, where she stayed until emancipation on 4 July 1827. Meanwhile, she took Dumont to court for having sold her son Peter to a slaveholder in Alabama, which violated the law. Isabella won the case and was reunited with Peter.
In February 2022, documents relating to Sojourner Truth’s successful 1828 court case were uncovered in the New York State Archives. Truth was the first African-American woman who sued white men to obtain the release of her son from slavery. This is a detail of one of the documents, showing the name Truth used at the time, Isabella Van Wagenen © New York State Archives
Fighting for justice
Her victory in court—one of the first of a Black woman in American modern history—triggered a desire to continue the struggle for racial justice and women’s rights in New York City. There, she was influenced by the wave of evangelical revivalism called the Second Great Awakening, which made her decide to change her name to Sojourner Truth. Truth’s Christian preaching went hand in hand with charity work and attempts to improve the living conditions of Black prostitutes.
A crucial decision in Truth’s life was her move to Florence, Massachusetts, where she joined the Northampton Association of Education and Industry in 1844. This utopian communitarian society that united people of all colours and social backgrounds brought her in touch with some of the nation’s leading abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison. The latter financed, in 1850, the publication of the life story that the illiterate Truth dictated to the Anglo-Saxon Olive Gilbert. Unfamiliar with Dutch culture, Gilbert’s transcription of Truth’s Narrative is full of misunderstandings. An example is Truth’s reference to her mother as “mama Bet,” which Gilbert transcribed as “Mau-Mau Bett.” Ever since, virtually all studies on Truth assume that her mother had the mysterious, African-sounding name Mau-Mau.
Title page and frontispiece portrait of the first edition of ‘Narrative,’ 1850 © Duke University Library, Durham
With her book in hand, Truth began to hold lecture tours, which she financed by selling cartes-de-visite with her picture. She often faced a hostile crowd. In 1850, for instance, the New York Herald warned against one of the conventions where Truth was to speak as a “motley mingling of abolitionists, socialists, and infidels, of all sexes and colours,” who wanted to “abolish both the Bible and the American constitution.” Such inflammatory language led to the formation of violent mobs, eager to disturb the speakers. Undisturbed, Truth kept preaching her message and when, in 1858, a crowd in northeastern Indiana shouted that she was not a woman but a man in disguise, she uncovered her breasts, said that her babies had suckled on them and then asked the surprised mob if they, too, wished to suck her nipples.
Truth sold cartes-de-visite and cabinet cards, such as this one from 1864, to raise money for her work © Library of Congress, Washington
Her most famous speech took place in 1851, at a Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, where Truth recalled the hardships she had faced as an enslaved mother. It became known as “Ain’t I a Woman?” and was later performed numerous times, most famously by Kerry Washington. It is questionable, however, if Frances Gage’s recorded version of this speech was accurate, all the more since the famous feminist reproduced Truth’s words with a southern pronunciation that was very different from her original accent. Even more problematic was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s recorded version of her meeting with Truth in 1853 in the essay “The Libyan Sibyl,” where the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) argued that Truth’s pronunciation of the English language reflected “the strong barbaric accent of the native African.”
During the Civil War, Truth became politically active by assisting at the recruitment of Black troops for the Union Army. In that capacity, she had an audience with President Lincoln in 1864. During her time in Washington, D.C., Truth challenged the de facto segregation in the city’s transportation system by insisting on her right to take a seat on streetcars. With her decision to use civil disobedience as a strategy to challenge segregation in public transportation, Truth anticipated Rosa Parks by almost a century.
Truth’s speech at the first annual meeting of the American Equal Rights Association in May 1867 was reported in the Surinam newspaper 'De kolonist: Dagblad toegewyd aan de belangen van Suriname'. Slavery had been abolished in the Dutch colony in 1863, but the former enslaved were still required to work on the plantations during a mandatory ten-year transition phase. © Delpher
However, Truth could also be an uncomfortable voice within her own community. For instance, when Douglass defended the use of violence in the fight for racial justice at a meeting in 1852, she interrupted him with the words “Frederick, is God gone?” and, in 1867, she provocatively stated that “if coloured men get their rights, and not coloured women theirs… the coloured men will be masters over the women, and it will be just as bad as it was before.”
By the end of her life, Truth moved to Battle Creek, Michigan, where she passed away in 1883. While largely forgotten afterwards, her legacy was rediscovered in the context of the Civil Rights Movement. In 1972, Shirley Chisholm referred to Truth as a model when she, as the first Black woman in history, announced her candidacy for the presidential elections, while bell hooks chose the words “Ain’t I a Woman?” as the title for her famous 1981 book on Black women and feminism.
In April 2009, First Lady Michelle Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi unveiled a bust of Sojourner Truth at the U.S. Capitol. © Wikimedia Commons
Born as an enslaved female who struggled to speak English and never acquired literacy, Truth acquired nationwide fame in 2009 when, in the presence of First Lady Michelle Obama, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, and Senator Hillary Clinton, she became the first African-American woman to be honoured with a bust in the U.S. Capitol building.
This article was originally published on the website of the National Archives of the Netherlands.
- Dewulf, Jeroen, “‘A Strong Barbaric Accent’: America’s Dutch-Speaking Black Community from Seventeenth-Century New Netherland to Nineteenth-Century New York and New Jersey,” American Speech: A Quarterly of Linguistic Usage, Vol. 90, Nr. 2 (May 2015): 131-153
- Fitch, Suzanne P., and Roseann M. Mandziuk, Sojourner Truth as Orator: Wit, Story and Song (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1997)
- Mabee, Carleton, Sojourner Truth: Slave, Prophet, Legend (New York: New York University Press, 1993)
- Painter, Nell Irvin, Sojourner Truth: A Life, a Symbol (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1996)
- Richman, Isabelle Kinnard, Sojourner Truth: Prophet of Social Justice (London: Routledge, 2016)
- Washington, Margaret, Sojourner Truth’s America (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009)
- Sojourner Truth, Narrative of Sojourner Truth, A Northern Slave, Emancipated from Bodily Servitude by the State of New York, in 1828 (Boston, Printed for the Author, 1850)
- Peter Kalm,Travels into North America, 1748–1749, ed. John Reinhold Forster (Barre, MA: The Imprint Society, 1972)
- New York State Archives Digital Collections, People v. Solomon Gedney, 1828