Sojourner: Her life is highlighted in Senate House lecture

One of the controversies over the proposed Dwight Eisenhower memorial in Washington was the monument committee’s plan to depict the future general and president as a Kansas farm boy, from whence he sprang.

The committee charged with creating a statue of abolitionist icon Sojourner Truth faced similar issues, ultimately deciding on an image closer to her roots in Ulster County as a pre-pubescent slave child than her later fame as traveler, lecturer and advocate of freedom.

The “Daughter of Esopus” statue to be dedicated late next spring at the site of the former Town Hall on Broadway in Port Ewen will depict Truth as an 11-year-old girl. At that point in her life, Truth, known as Isabella, was owned by farmer John Dumont of West Park (then part of New Paltz) who had purchased her for $175. Born a slave about 1797 on the Hardenburgh farm in Rifton, Truth was the youngest of 13 siblings, none of whom she ever knew. Her language, according to lecturer and county historian Anne Gordon of Port Ewen, was “low Dutch,” all but incomprehensible to English ears. She learned English, but always retained her Dutch accent.

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Gordon was the most recent speaker in the series “Kingston’s Hidden Treasurers” at the Senate House Museum.

By 11, Truth had already been sold twice. Severely beaten at times — she would show the scars at lectures later in life — she worked for farmers, one of whom taught her English, and a tavern owner in Port Ewen under conditions that are almost unimaginable today.

She was forced into marriage at about the age of 20; the union produced a boy, Peter, and three daughters. A hard worker, she was said to be “worth the price of two men,” according to Gordon

“As a young slave, she walked these roads of Esopus. That’s how we wanted to depict her,” Gordon told an audience of about 65 persons at the Senate Museum Friday night, Nov. 16. Truth left the Hudson Valley for New York City to pursue Methodist missionary work among the poor and African Americans in 1829, never, apparently, to return. She died in 1883 and is buried in Battle Creek, Michigan. Gordon said Truth has about 400 descendants, divided between Battle Creek and California.

Funding for the $91,000 five-foot bronze sculpture was derived largely through a grant secured by Assemblyman Kevin Cahill, D-Kingston, whose 101st district includes Esopus.

“It was a lot of money and it was difficult raising, all things considered,” Gordon said. “We went to Assemblyman Cahill and I was immediately impressed by his unquestionable acceptance of honoring Sojourner Truth in the town where she lived. He gets it.” Gordon is a former Democratic legislator from Esopus.

New Paltz sculptor Trina Greene, interviewed after Gordon’s Sojourner Truth lecture, said she gave a great deal of study and thought to the image she and the committee wanted to present.

“I imagined she was kind of gangly at that age,” Greene said of Truth, who in maturity was an imposing figure, well over six feet tall.

Greene said she used as models images from a photo book authored by Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl, on West African natives of the Kau tribe in 1974-76, and two New Paltz 11-year-olds, her granddaughter Lindsay Greene and her classmate, Allie Defoe. That Imperial German had colonies in West Africa before World War I may have sparked the unrepentant Riefenstahl’s interest in its people.

Greene said many of the early American slaves were captured in West Africa. The Kau people she studied, she said, “were very tall and beautiful.”

Greene said she also attempted to capture some of what she believed was the character of an 11-year-old Sojourner Truth, an illiterate child approaching womanhood who had suffered many of the horrors and degradation of slavery, but one with an inner determination and pride she hid from her masters, a “sense of her true grit and sweetness.”

Truth’s childhood qualities of character would be demonstrated later in life as an abolitionist and as an early advocate of women’s rights.

“She really was America’s voice of freedom, both racial and gender,” said county commissioner of jurors Paul O’Neil, moderator for the continuing lecture series called “Kingston’s Hidden Treasures.”

After legally and literally “walking to freedom” in 1826, she gained early fame in 1828 by suing her master in Ulster County Court for the return of her son Peter. Peter later became a sailor on a whaling boat out of New Bedford, MA and was apparently lost at sea.

Truth met Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. Reports of their conversation, which might have been apocryphal, went something like this, Gordon told her audience:

“I never heard of you before you were president,” said Truth.

“But I heard of you,” Lincoln replied.

The Buried Treasures series continues on Friday, Dec. 14 at 5:30 p.m. with a presentation on Thomas Cornell, “Rondout’s Vanderbilt,” by Stuart Murray. Lectures are at the Senate House Museum and the public is invited. Seating is limited.

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