Last Saturday, a large crowd gathered at the corner of Route 9W and Salem Street in Port Ewen for the unveiling of a bronze statue of a young black girl. She is barefoot, carries two jugs and is caught mid-stride, her shift falling off her shoulder to reveal deep grooves in her back. The child-scaled work of art was an instant hit, with boys and girls of all sizes and colors clustering around it for a photo op and touching the grooves, which, everyone was informed in the speeches that preceded the unveiling, were caused by a beating with heated rods by the girl’s master.
It’s perhaps the only statue of a slave child in the U.S., yet, contrary to the common assumption that slavery occurred only in the South, captures a part of local history. The statue depicts a well-known personage as she was before anyone heard of her: Sojourner Truth, when she was still known by her christened name, Isabella. Born a slave in 1797 in Ulster County, Isabella is shown when she was in servitude to a local tavern owner in possibly the very spot where she would have lugged gallons of rum and molasses from the ferry crossing the Rondout Creek to the Strand on her way back to the tavern. She grew up to be a famous orator, abolitionist, and women’s rights activist. Many years later, in 1843, she changed her name to Sojourner Truth when, according to her Narrative, she left her home in Ulster County and took to the road to fulfill her life’s mission, having received a message from God.
There are numerous statues of Truth, many of which are in the Midwest, where she lived in her old age, along with a bust recently put on display in the U.S. Capitol. However, this is the only one that depicts her as a child, according to the Sojourner Truth Memorial Committee, which spearheaded the project. By showing Truth as a girl of 10 or 11 going about her daily work, the statute humanizes Truth, who is usually depicted as a tall, bespectacled, severe-looking woman in a plain dress. It also emphasizes her upbringing as a slave, capturing a moment of veracity in her life and the life of Esopus, and touching on an aspect of history that to many is unknown.
It was initially Esopus Councilwoman Deborah Silvestro who had the idea for creating a Truth memorial in the new pocket park created by the state Department of Transportation, after the old town hall that had occupied the site was torn down. A committee, chaired by Ulster County historian Anne Gordon, was formed to execute the project. Sculptor Trina Greene, who lives in New Paltz’s Woodland Pond and maintains a studio in the area, was hired to create the bronze statute. The project cost $90,000, according to committee member Tim Allred. Allred said $75,000 of that amount was funded by a New York State Capital Grant and the remainder from donations from local foundations, businesses, and individuals, including the New York State Main Street Program, the Reformed Church of Port Ewen, Scenic Hudson, Timely Signs, and Carleton Mabee, author of a biography about Truth.
Speeches given by Esopus Town Supervisor John Coutant, Assemblyman Kevin Cahill, and Nancy Giles, the commentator for CBS Sunday Morning News, along with a poem recited by Bobbi Katz, highlighted the sufferings of the young girl, the extraordinary contribution to the cause of freedom and justice made by her adult self, and the pride of the town in making its stand for the same cause in finally memorializing this painful history.
“Though she was treated like property, not only was she one of the foremost abolitionists but also one of the first people in this country to stand up for the rights of women,” said Cahill. “Everyone wants to say Sojourner Truth is our daughter and our mother, but she’s a child of Esopus.”
Cahill noted one of the most extraordinary accomplishments of Truth happened in the Ulster County Courthouse: her successful lawsuit in 1828 against a white man who had illegally sold her 5-year-old son to an Alabama slaveholder. Truth worked as a domestic in Kingston while pursuing the case, aided by sympathetic local attorneys. When the kidnapper finally produced her son in the courthouse, it was a bittersweet victory, given that the young boy bore the scars of severe beatings.
Katz’s poem, “Becoming Sojourner,” recounted the sale of the girl to three different slave owners as well as the day she escaped, her youngest child in her arms, by walking to the home of a kind and empathetic Quaker family.
After Truth left Ulster County for New York City, she became a traveling evangelist. The six-foot-tall woman with the deep, resonating voice — she was a gifted gospel singer as well as a speaker — would become so successful that she would meet three presidents in the White House and become friends with the leading reformers of her day. She traveled from Maine to Kansas speaking at abolitionist and suffrage conferences, supporting herself by selling her songs, photograph and memoir, the Narrative of Sojourner Truth, which was first written down by Olive Gilbert in 1850 and became a bestseller. Truth lived in utopian religious communities in the Northeast and in Battle Creek, Mich., where she passed away at age 86 in 1883.
The statue is surrounded by concrete pavement so as to accommodate groups of schoolchildren, and there’s an adjacent parking area. A plaque provides a basic chronology of Truth’s early life, locating the sites of her various homes in the area. The committee has also erected a plaque at the stone house at the corner of River Road and Route 9W, which was the tavern where Isabella was a slave, according to Allred.
Giles, who noted that when she was the age of Isabella as depicted in the statue she was “hooked on All My Children, getting a job at Alexander’s at Rego Park, and experimenting with eyeliner,” said that despite the scars on the statue’s back, “she’s gracefully moving forward” — symbolic of the nation’s progress in finally unearthing the complete history of slavery. Slavery in New York, which began in 1626 when the Dutch started bringing over kidnapped Africans, was not fully abolished until 1827.
“Being here and seeing people here is emotional for me,” Giles said, after noting that the history of African-Americans is unique from any other group, in that “we were property.” “We’re living in a time when the country is splitting apart more than coming together, and your embrace of this true American history makes me grateful and humble. The only way to move forward is to embrace our history, good and bad. Thank you, Esopus, for being a real American town.”