Black History Month in the Hudson Valley: A History of Sojourner Truth, Slave-Turned-Activist in Ulster County, Upstate NY
Seeking Truth: Few remember that Sojourner Truth, former slave turned abolitionist and women’s rights activist, started her journey in Ulster County
Local heroine: Sojourner Truth, as she appeared in 1864. Born near Rifton in Ulster County, Truth sold similar portraits of herself to help finance her speaking tours
Photograph courtesy of Library of Congress
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Even if she hadn’t changed her name, Isabella Baumfree would likely still be remembered now, nearly 130 years after her death, for the brave and life-changing work she did. But Baumfree did change her name — wonderfully so — and it has permanently cemented her in the pantheon of American historical figures. Indeed, today’s best marketing and branding experts could not improve on the moniker she chose: Sojourner Truth.
Even those who aren’t quite sure what she did can tell, by that name, what she stood for. And yet, many of those who are able describe her self-chosen mission to “travel up and down the land” speaking truth to power may not remember that she began her travels in Ulster County, where she lived for the first 30 years of her life.
When the library at SUNY New Paltz was named after her in the early 1970s, history professor Carleton Mabee (now retired) and librarian Corinne Nyquist began digging into Truth’s local connections. “Carleton and I walked out of the library planning session and said, ‘She came from here, and we ought to know more about her,’ ” says Nyquist. “There was not much information about her early years in other books about her.”
The pair met with local historians and tracked down family names associated with Truth’s history. Mabee, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Samuel Morse, used his research to write Sojourner Truth: Slave, Prophet, Legend, which was published in 1995. Most of what we know about Truth’s Hudson Valley days comes from Mabee’s book and Nyquist’s research; the information is available at www.newpaltz.edu/sojourner_truth, on the SUNY New Paltz Web site.