I’m standing in front of the Ulster County Courthouse at 285 Wall Street in Kingston, New York. Not now, but in my memory as I write this. And I’m returning to this same courthouse as I set out with Olivia Twine on a blogging tour of the “Cradle” of the women’s rights movement in the United States. We’ll be blogging online through the “Cradle” of the women’s rights movement in the US over the next seven days.
We’re hitting the road first in Ulster County where I lived for 20 years from 1972 to 1992, and where I visited the courthouse plaque in Kingston often during the years I lived in Ulster County. Of all of Ulster’s famous historical figures, Sojourner Truth has risen to the top as my favorite.
After the unveiling of a bust of Truth in the Emancipation Hall in the nation’s capitol in 2009, this new statue in New York represents another a major step forward in mainstream recognition of Sojourner Truth as an important traveling minister, major civil rights leader and activist in American history.
She hit the lecture trail on hundreds of occasions to mesmerize audiences with her dynamic perspectives about faith, abolition, and the bondage of women. After each appearance, she moved onto the next stage of her travels. People couldn’t forget her.
Sojourner Truth was born a slave not far from Hurley, the site of Stone House Days, an annual event when every year in July some of the oldest stone homes in the nation, going back to the early Dutch settlement in the Hudson Valley, are open to the public.
No single house is dedicated to Sojourner Truth, though one stone building’s claim to fame is that of a stop on the Underground Railroad. Sojourner Truth walked these streets and passed by these stone houses. As the slave of a Dutch settler, her first language was Dutch. Throughout her life, she spoke English with a Dutch accent.
The county courthouse property on Wall Street in Kingston, featuring the plaque to Sojourner Truth that was installed in 1983, is also the site of the inauguration of New York’s first governor, George Clinton, following his election in 1777.
It’s the same courthouse where over the 20th century, six Ulster County judges condemned seven defendants to death. And it’s the same courthouse where Sojourner Truth stormed through the courthouse doors in 1828 to demand legal redress to free her son Peter who’d been kidnapped and sold into slavery in Alabama. After months of litigation, she won.
Filing a legal suit and winning against a Southern slave owner represented an astonishing feat, an accomplishment that has resonated ever since. NYS Governor Andrew Cuomo appointed Karen Peters to the position of Presiding Justice of the Appellate Division, Third Department in 2012. Peters, who had argued cases in the Ulster County courthouse and served as a judge there, cited the lessons she’d learned from the example of Sojourner Truth. She’s among many who carry that spirit into the present and future.
SOJOURNER TRUTH, THE SHOWSTOPPER, KNOCKED DOWN DOORS
Sojourner Truth and Abraham Lincoln. Library of Congress.
Sojourner Truth was feisty, courageous and outspoken. She knew full well the meaning of bondage and freedom. So it’s significant that the courthouse, that has been a hub of condemning people to bondage and imprisonment going back to the turn of the 20th century, would feature a plaque to celebrate an important cultural treasure such as Sojourner Truth.
She represented the salt of the earth and became a passionate showstopper everywhere she went. Some Ulster County residents rallied in support of her effort to free her son; she forged ahead and stood tall as a Joan of Arc of her times. This example represents just one of many instances in her life where Truth’s determination and persistence couldn’t be stopped.
Truth rose from her seat at the 1851 National Women’s Rights Convention in Ohio to deliver a message that today we recognize as her “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech. This is a well-known and dramatic example of her style, though it was, no doubt, similar to hundreds of other presentations like it. In some instances she faced mobs throwing stones. On the speakers’ platform she wore a silk scarf with the Biblical quote from Leviticus 25:10: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.”
Two years ago when visiting the Sophia Smith Collection: Women’s History Archives at Smith College, I requested their file on Sojourner Truth. It contained a small photo of Truth printed on cardboard that she sold to raise money for her travels. Holding something which Sojourner Truth had most likely held herself and sold to an audience member brought me to tears. But then again, I have a soft spot for this sort of thing.
“I’M NOT GOING TO DIE, I’M GOING HOME LIKE A SHOOTING STAR.”
Today, most people must settle for statues, plaques and monuments, a well as the spirit that’s behind them. Sojourner Truth had a corner on the spirit market. She changed her name to Sojourner Truth in 1843 to be consistent with her mission of reaching out to the world. She was driven by spirit with a capital “S” and continues to impress us today with statements that have been passed down over the years such as:
“If women want rights more than they got, why don’t they just take them, and not be talking about it.”
“ . . . I have borne five children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me. And ain’t I a woman?”
“I’m not going to die, I’m going home like a shooting star.”
I’ve always aspired to be like Sojourner Truth, though the attempt represents a pale imitation of the real Sojourner Truth. I’ve called on her spirit whenever I’ve been in jams or up against circumstances or social systems that wouldn’t budge. On the surface, Sojourner Truth had everything going against her and yet she disrupted and moved mountain ranges.
Sojourner Truth never wrote a book, though her “told to” life story is available on the internet and contains unforgettable images and descriptions of what it was like to be a slave in Ulster County and the Hudson Valley. See The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave. Reading the account of her life made an indelible impact on me. During the 20 years I lived in Ulster County and traveled the back roads and witnessed a landscape recognizable to Sojourner Truth, I couldn’t help but marvel about how many area residents were unaware of her remarkable story.
This is changing rapidly. The library at New Paltz College (SUNY) is named after Sojourner Truth. A notable number of scholars have devoted their careers to researching and documenting her life. Her Ulster County slave master, John Dumont, will go down in history as promising Sojourner Truth her freedom and then changing his mind. She plotted, schemed, and met her obligations before turning her back on bondage a year before New York abolished slavery in 1827.
Though her given name at birth was Isabella Baumfree, Sojourner Truth is how she is most remembered. She spoke the truth and rattled cages. She held her own on Votes for Women lecture platforms, wore simple clothing described as Quaker-like, and stood next to suffrage activists dressed in gowns and fashionable hats. On November 26, 1883 –130 years ago– she died at her home in Battle Creek, Michigan.
People loved Sojourner Truth for good reason, which makes it appropriate to begin with Sojourner Truth on this blogging tour of the “Cradle” of the women’s rights movement in the US. We’ll be visiting the homes of suffragist Matilda Joslyn Gage, Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, the hometown of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the national park at Seneca Falls. Follow us at: LetsRockTheCradle.com
Along the way I’ll be resurrecting more of Truth’s messages from the past, polishing and fanning their light and glory, and sharing the spirit with others. The new bronze statue by Trina Green of New Paltz is of Truth, as a slave child, working. It’s a reminder to all of us to listen carefully to Sojourner Truth as her words come down to us from a very different time and are very much relevant to today.
Don’t give up. Don’t lose heart. Our vision and determination won’t die. Sojourner Truth has passed on treasures with the messages of her life, spirit and determination as a reminder to make significant change in our world today
And in the end, like Sojourner Truth, we’ll go home like a shooting star.