DAY #1: Going home with Sojourner Truth, by Marguerite Kearns

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.


ST LOC Truth and Lincoln

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.


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:

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.





DAY #1. Sojourner Truth Statue Unveiled! by Olivia Twine

Sojourner Truth Statue9-2013 Photo by Olivia Twine, Unveiling of Sojourner Truth statue, Port Ewen, New York. September 21, 2013. Day #1. Blogging Tour of the “Cradle” of the US Women’s Rights Movement.

The unveiling of the Sojourner Truth statue in the town of Esopus, NY, where the abolitionist  preacher was held a slave as a child, was a remarkable experience. I’ve lived in the Hudson Valley County of Ulster all my life and have never witnessed the “owning” of the shameful past of slavery before.  Truth’s statue in the Esopus hamlet of Port Ewen represents the only statue in the world of a child slave at work, according to Ulster County Historian Anne Gordon. Although Truth was well known in her time, her status as an emblem of northern slavery is coming to light on a broad scale. That the people of Port Ewen honor a former slave who left Ulster County and never looked back, that children run their hands over her bronzed back to feel the welts of the beatings she endured here, that the town supervisor proudly describes her as “a child of Esopus,” suggests that we as a people are ready to move to the healing phase of a sordid aspect of our history.

Nancy Giles, the award winning television journalist at CBS News Sunday Morning, was the featured speaker at the unveiling ceremony. She noted that as a child in Queens, she was unaware that slavery existed in the north. Giles was moved that “our sometimes bizarre history” is being discussed now in this small town. “African Americans are the only American immigrants who were property. That’s what distinguishes us from all other immigrant groups,” she said. Truth was part of the suffrage movement of the 19th century and understood the relationship between abolition, women’s suffrage and the life of the spirit.  She would have been surprised at the turnout of African American sorority members of Delta Sigma Theta who turned out by the thousands last March to commemorate the centennial of the 1913 suffrage parade organized by Alice Paul and others in Washington D.C.

Giles offered an interesting update on the “melting pot” metaphor. “I’ve always had a problem with the melting pot — this idea that Americans come together and are melted down into a kind of American stew. I think we’re more like a salad, our diversities tossed together in a delicious dish of individual flavors,” she said.

The unveiling revealed more than a bronze  likeness of a thirteen-year-old. Beautifully rendered by sculptor Trina Green of New Paltz, this fine piece of public art  unabashedly features the welts on the child’s back that resulted from a particularly cruel beating she received at the hands of her second master, John Neely. (Neely became furious when the child misunderstood his orders. At that point in her young life, Truth spoke only Dutch and didn’t understand English.) Born Isabella Baumfree in 1797,  Truth overcame the extreme challenges that faced her and developed into an charismatic speaker who stood more than six feet tall and belted out her point of view in English with a Dutch accent.

She withstood the challenges of her enslavement, which included physical torture and deprivation—her feet froze in the winter– and the trauma of being separated from first her parents and then from her children. Far from succumbing to helplessness, Truth fought and won a case in Ulster County Court in 1828 to free her son who had been sold into slavery in Alabama. She summoned her courage and developed her character known around the country as Sojourner Truth, a name she adopted in the 1840s. She is best known for her speech:“..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. Ain’t I a woman?”

Truth’s parents were enslaved in Africa and purchased by Colonel Johannes Hardenburgh. Isabella was one of 13 children and lived about 30 years in Ulster County as a slave. She was sold several times before New York State enacted the Emancipation Act in the late 1820s. According the “The Narrative of Sojourner Truth, a Northern Slave,” told by Truth in 1850, she was first sold at an auction with a flock of sheep to the cruel Neely when she was nine years old. She was sold again in 1808, this time to a tavern keeper in Port Ewen, Martinus Schryver. Her duties included hauling heavy loads of molasses or liquor by foot over long distances daily. Schryver was said to be crude but honest and kind. Truth was sold again and finally escaped with her infant daughter to the home of Isaac and Maria Van Wagner, who paid her owner for her services until the Emancipation Act went into effect.

The Mid- Hudson River county where Truth endured an unimaginable childhood welcomes her back as a bronze statue. If only the statue would come to life and give us her view of America today.  I would tell her the idea of a slave being honored in Port Ewen’s public square was unimaginable when I was a teenager in the 1960s. ++