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
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.
“I walked off, believing that to be all right”
Isabella Baumfree was born circa 1797, one of 13 children of slaves named Elizabeth and James Baumfree, who were owned by Colonel Johannes Hardenbergh and worked on his estate in Swartekill, near what is now Rifton. This was a heavily Dutch settlement, and Baumfree spoke only Dutch for the first several years of her life. She had a typically horrific slave’s life. At around age nine, she was sold away from her family — along with a herd of sheep — for $100 to a man named John Neely. The Neelys spoke English, and Isabella was savagely beaten for being unable to communicate. She said that Mrs. Neely once whipped her with “a bundle of rods, prepared in the embers, and bound together with cords.” She learned English here, but spoke with a Dutch accent for the rest of her life.
She was sold twice more, finally ending up with the Dumont family of New Paltz. Here too she was abused, and around this time she began turning to religion and (she claimed) hearing the voice of God. In her late teens, she fell in love with a slave named Robert. One night, while Robert visited her, his owner followed him, brutally beat him, and dragged him away. She never saw Robert again, but soon gave birth to her first child. A few years later, her owner forced her to marry another slave; they had four children (one failed to survive) between 1822 and 1826.
The Dumonts had promised to free Isabella when New York officially abolished slavery in 1827, but broke that promise. Not long after, she escaped with one of her daughters. “I did not run off, for I thought that wicked,” she said later, “but I walked off, believing that to be all right.”
Adrift, Isabella and her child wandered to the home of Isaac and Maria Van Wagenen. When Dumont found her and threatened to take her baby if she didn’t return, Isaac Van Wagenen bought her services for $20 until emancipation took effect.
The Van Wagenens treated her well, insisting she not call them “master” and “mistress.” During this time she became “overwhelmed with the greatness of the Divine presence,” and became a devout Methodist. She also began her first fight against injustice by trying to retrieve her five-year-old son, Peter. She learned he had been illegally sold to an owner in Alabama. A Quaker denomination helped her track Peter down and, in a case held at the Kingston Courthouse, she sued to get him back.
“As she tells it, she didn’t know what a grand jury was, so she walked up the courthouse steps and asked someone,” says Nyquist. “She found them and told them about her son. Think about the courage this woman had to do that.”
Remarkably, she won her suit, and got Peter back. She was the first black woman to go to court against a white man and win. The event is memorialized by a plaque near the courthouse door.
“The Spirit calls me, and I must go”
Around 1829, Isabella and her two children traveled to New York City. She supported herself as a housekeeper and began street preaching with an odd and eventually unsuccessful ministry called the Retrenchment Society. Over the next 13 years, she became known as a powerful and persuasive speaker. When her group floundered, she decided to become a traveling preacher, telling her friends, “The Spirit calls me, and I must go.” And she changed her name to Sojourner Truth.
She wandered northeast, eventually finding a utopian community in Massachusetts called the Northampton Association of Education and Industry, where she stayed from 1844-46. The association was strongly abolitionist, tolerant, and a supporter of women’s rights. Truth even met and worked with abolitionist leaders such as Frederick Douglass. When the association disbanded — it failed to make enough money to support itself — Truth went to live with one of its founders, George Benson. Unable to read or write, she dictated her life story, and The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave was published by noted abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison in 1850. Truth sold copies at her speaking and preaching stops, giving her enough money to buy a home in Northampton for $300.
“After moving she seldom visited the mid-Hudson Valley again,” says Mabee. “When she later talked against slavery in New York State, it was likely to be in New York City and across the central part of the state from Albany through Utica, Syracuse, and Rochester. In these areas there were strong antislavery societies. There were none in Ulster County.”
“Ain’t I a woman?”
It was when she was in her 50s that Truth’s reputation really began to grow. In 1854, she gave perhaps her most famous speech at the Ohio Woman’s Rights Convention in Akron. It became known as the “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech, and pulled together her personal story of slavery, abuse, and degradation.
During the Civil War, she spoke about and aided the Union cause, enlisted black troops (her grandson was part of the 54th Regiment, Massachusetts), and helped emancipated slaves adjust to their new freedom. She even met President Abraham Lincoln. In 1863, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote a praise-filled article about her in The Atlantic Monthly.
After the Civil War ended, Truth continued working to help the newly freed slaves, and traveling to preach and speak. In 1874, she developed ulcers on her leg, and by 1880, she could no longer travel widely. She continued to preach around Michigan, speaking up for temperance and against capital punishment. She died on November 26, 1883, at 86 years of age, and is buried in Michigan.
At one time, Mabee gave tours of select local sites that were important in Truth’s life, but no longer does so. Along with the Kingston Courthouse, there are churches, gravesites, and homes she frequented. Some of them are in private hands or in a fragile state, so Nyquist is reluctant to say where they are. “But if people want to visit them, I can contact the owners and try to arrange it,” she says. “Ulster County should have some kind of tour on her life here. That would be fascinating.”
In 2009 the Esopus town board established the Sojourner Truth Memorial at the corner of Route 9W and Salem Street in Port Ewen. The memorial is slated to include a statue of Truth as a young girl, which (according to Corinne Nyquist) will be erected sometime later this year.
The Sojourner Truth Memorial Fund needs financial help. Tax-deductible contributions can be mailed to P.O. Box 3046, Kingston, New York 12402. For more information, visit www.sojournertruthesopusmemorial.com.