The Ulster County Legislature will declare November 26 as “Sojourner Truth Day” at its meeting 7 p.m. tonight, Tuesday, February 15.
“Establishing a Sojourner Truth Day in Ulster County is such an honor,” said her sixth-generation generation granddaughter Barbara Allen, in attendance from Battle Creek, Michigan, where Sojourner spent her last years, “to a remarkable woman who spent her life crusading for others’ civil rights while dealing with her own obstacles and memories of past injustices.”
Inspired by the efforts of four young women, empowerment coordinators affiliated with the Kingston YMCA Farm Project, county officials were called on to introduce the legislation.
Sojourner’s story begins in the the Dutch-speaking Ulster County of 1797, where slavery was common and where Sojourner was born a slave. Over the next 30 years she would be bought and sold four times, compelled to harsh physical labor, and often subjected to violent punishments
During Sojourner’s life, in New York at least, slavery was already on the way out — for most.
The Gradual Emancipation Law freeing slave children born after the July 4, 1799 had been passed, but the law was written to appease the slave owners. The emancipation was a long and drawn-out process.
Cruel as it was, slavery played a critical economic role in the economy of New York at the time, and the government was wary of fomenting unrest among the master class.
Women would not be freed until they reached 25 years of age, and men 28 years. A full quarter of a century of their lives was still wasted.
If they were born before 1799, as was the case with Sojourner Truth, they would not be freed at all.
This she could not abide. In 1827 she escaped her bondage with her infant daughter in her arms.
The Van Wagener family, Quaker abolitionists, took her in and hid her. They managed to buy her freedom — a human life for $20. The Van Wageners further helped Sojourner to sue successfully in Kingston court for the return of her son Peter, who had been illegally sold into slavery in Alabama.
If the story stopped there, it would still be a portrait of fortitude and bravery worthy of recognition. But for Sojourner Truth, born Isabella Bomfree, the story only began there.
In 1851, by the time she delivered her famous “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech in Akron, Ohio, she had become nationally recognized. Having narrated her own autobiography — for she could neither read nor write — she toured the country, giving speeches on such themes as temperance, a woman’s right to vote, and of course the awful institution of slavery into which she was born.
“It feels so good to know that Ulster County, Sojourner Truth’s birthplace and the place where she took her first steps to freedom, will always have a day for honoring and celebrating her,” said Jessica Alonso, one of the empowerment coordinators behind the push for commemoration. “She is a groundbreaking local, state, and national hero, so this day is truly long overdue.”
It is unlikely any legislators will dissent.