22¢ Sojourner Truth
Black Heritage Series
Issue Date: February 4, 1986
City: New Paltz, NY
Printed By: American Bank Note Co
Printing Method: Photogravure
Sojourner Truth was born Isabella Baumfree in Swartekill, New York in 1797. She was born to slaves at a time when slavery was still legal in New York. When she was nine, Truth was sold with a flock of sheep for $100.
Truth suffered beatings at the hands of a cruel master for three years before being sold several times. In 1799, New York began to legislate to abolish slavery, though the law wouldn’t go into effect until 1827. Truth’s owner promised to free her a year before the state emancipation, but when she injured her hand, he claimed she was less productive and rescinded his promise. Truth then worked furiously, spinning 100 pounds of wool, to make up for her injury.
Then in late 1826, Truth escaped with her infant daughter, leaving her other four children behind. Truth found shelter in the home of Isaac and Maria Van Wagener, who paid her former master $20 for her freedom. While there, Truth learned that one of her sons had been illegally sold to an owner in Alabama. She took the issue to court and got her son back, making her one of the first African American women to go to court against a white man and win.
Truth had a life-changing experience while living with the Van Wageners. She became “overwhelmed with the greatness of the Divine presence” and began preaching in 1843, telling friends, “The Spirit calls me and I must go.” She changed her name to Sojourner Truth on June 1, 1843, because she believed that God had called her to “testify the hope that was in her.”
Truth traveled throughout the North, speaking against slavery and for women’s rights. In 1850, she spoke at the first National Women’s Rights Convention in Worcester, Massachusetts. Her friend Olive Gilbert wrote her memoirs, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave, which helped supplement her income.
During the Civil War, Sojourner Truth recruited black troops to fight for the Union. In 1864, she moved to Washington, DC, to work for the National Freedman’s Relief Association. She met with President Lincoln in October of that year. In 1865, she rode in streetcars to help campaign for their desegregation.
Truth continued to work with newly freed slaves after the war and to speak on their behalf whenever she had the opportunity. She spent years trying unsuccessfully to persuade the Federal government to give free land in the West to former slaves, so they could escape harsh treatment in the South. Truth was encouraged when many black people began moving West and settling in Kansas. She again traveled and spoke, this time to gain support for the pioneers she called the “Exodusters.”
In 1872, Truth met with President Ulysses S. Grant and returned home to Battle Creek, Michigan to speak on his behalf in his re-election campaign. She even tried to vote in that election, but was turned away.
Truth continued to advocate for the rights of others until her death on November 26, 1883. Many buildings have been named in her honor, as well as the robotic rover of the NASA Mars Pathfinder.