The most familiar images of Ulster County’s greatest historical heroine – the one on the 1986 postage stamp, say, or the big portrait in the lobby of the library named after her on the SUNY-New Paltz campus – have created an indelible impression in our minds of Sojourner Truth as an elderly woman. We think of someone very tall and rangy, lean and hard-muscled even in old age, of whom we can well believe the boast in her electrifying “Ain’t I a woman?” speech that when she worked in the fields, “No man could head me.”
Nowadays various towns in the county proudly compete for a piece of legacy of the great orator, abolitionist and suffragist at some point in her long (1797-1883) and eventful life. Rifton claims her birth site, on the Swartekill Creek. West Park has mapped the route of her flight as a young woman, from servitude by the Hudson westward over the Shaupeneak Ridge to refuge with an abolitionist Quaker family. In Kingston the courthouse still stands where she fought successfully for the return of her son Peter, who had been illegally sold off at the age of 5 to slavery in Alabama.
But an episode, little-known until recently, in the life of the girl then called Isabella Baumfree took place in what is now downtown Port Ewen. At the age of 11 she was sold to a tavernkeeper named Martinus Schryver. His inn, where she worked for the next couple of years, stood very near the former site of the Esopus Town Hall. So it is very fitting that the statue of Sojourner Truth to be dedicated in a brand-new “pocket park” on that site on Saturday depicts her as a girl of 13, in 1810, as recollected in her own narrative of her life 40 years later.
The bronze statue was sculpted by Trina Green of New Paltz, with funding supplied by a New York State grant secured by assemblyman Kevin Cahill, as well as donations from individuals, businesses and charitable foundations. The New York State Department of Transportation assisted with construction of new park.
The unveiling ceremony for the Town of Esopus Sojourner Truth Memorial will begin at 2 p.m. on September 21, at the intersection of Route 9W and Salem Street. Emmy Award-winning CBS News journalist Nancy Giles will be the featured speaker.
It’s about time that Ulster County paid proper tribute to the memory of a historical figure of such importance that she likely would have statues in every town square and public park for many miles around years ago, had she only been born white and male. And the moment of this particular statue’s unveiling will be a bit of history in itself: a testament to the slow-but-sure incorporation of the story of the struggles of women, blacks and other disenfranchised people into the larger American narrative. It’s a moment not to be missed.
Town of Esopus Sojourner Truth Memorial dedication ceremony, Saturday, September 21, 2 p.m., free, Sojourner Truth Park, Route 9W/Salem Street, Port Ewen; www.esopus.com/sojourner_truth.html.