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NATIONAL | winter 2003


In the Footsteps of Sojourner Truth

Ms. Winter 2003

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Weekly News Digest

Read Part I in the Fall 2003 Issue.

Part 2: New York City to Ulster County

A troubled son

I am pleading for the mothers
Who gaze in wild despair
Upon the hated auction-block,
And see their children there.

When she arrived in 1827 Manhattan from Ulster County, N.Y., where she was born, Sojourner Truth still carried the name Isabella Van Wagenen. She would have encountered a black community in Manhattan that had been there for more than a century, some of its members native Dutch speakers like herself. During her 14 years in New York City she would work as a domestic in several households, worship at several churches, engage in informal religious studies and evangelize at a home for reformed prostitutes.

Much of Isabella’s time and energy at first was devoted to keeping her son, Peter, out of trouble, a trial with which I can identify. We’ve both mothered sons under adversity: I’m a single parent, and Isabella, whose child had been stolen away and illegally sold, fought to get him back and keep him out of harm’s way. Sojourner Truth had four daughters too, but in reading about her life we learn much more about her son.

While in Manhattan, Isabella was drawn into a religious cult led by charismatic misogynist Robert Matthias. She moved to Westchester County when the cult established a commune in the town of Sing Sing (now Ossining), where the famed prison had just been built. The Kingdom of Matthias would eventually disband under a cloud of scandal, but not before Isabella had been economically, physically and sexually exploited. But she fought back: In a series of sensational court cases, she sued former members for slander, took her meager award and returned to Manhattan.

Her teenaged son had been running amok during her absence: gambling, thieving, loitering—even impersonating an Episcopal minister. With her encouragement, Peter shipped out of Nantucket on a whaling vessel. It would be the last time she would see him.

Over the next nine years, her political consciousness grew. She tells of being given 50 cents to pay a worker to clean snow from the steps of the household in which she worked. Instead of paying him, she pocketed the money and cleaned the steps herself. She became wracked with guilt over her own greed, and over economic injustice in general.

In 1843, Isabella had a sudden revelation that she must go “into the east” because “the spirit calls me there.” Her name would be Sojourner, her mission to travel the land and speak the word of God. Giving the mistress of the household an hour’s notice, she set out from 74 Canal St. in lower Manhattan with a few belongings in a pillow case and two New York shillings to her name.

In the spirit of that sojourn, I decide to follow the route she took on the morning of June 1, 1843—the day that changed her name and defined her life.

I take the N train south from Chelsea, where I’m staying, get off at Canal Street and emerge into the heated hustling of Chinatown. The street is lined on both sides with independent vendors and crowded shops, hawking everything from designer knock-offs to plastic trinkets, cheap electronics to fresh lychees. I elbow my way past Mulberry, Mott, Elizabeth, Bowery, and Chrystie Streets, stopping to buy coconut water in the shell from a Chinese vendor.

As I trudge past the looming Gothic structure of the Manhattan Bridge down to Eldridge Street, the throngs of humanity diminish. I discover that 74 Canal St. is now Fong’s Trading, an Asian import shop with a wooden display of dusty curios out front. I purchase two embroidered Thai bags, clearance-priced. The sales clerk, who says he isn’t Mr. Fong, urges me to buy more.

“Only five dollars,” he wheedles. “Very good price.”

The sales clerk has never heard of Sojourner Truth, much less imagined she had lived on this very spot, though it is possible that the street boundaries and addresses have changed over the past 160 years.

From here, the newly named Sojourner had walked several miles south to a ferry landing. Being a weak and overheated 21st century woman, I walk to Allen Street and step into the M bus, which careens onto Madison Avenue, narrowly avoiding a collision with a Chinese delivery truck. On Pearl Street, past FDR Drive, Chinatown transitions into a tonier neighborhood of office buildings, boutiques and high-rise condos.

Correcting History

It’s bad enough that a 1920 marble statue of American suffragists Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott was relegated to a basement of the U.S. Capitol for 77 years. Almost worse, in the opinion of the National Congress of Black Women (NCBW), is that the statue doesn’t include a fourth pillar of the suffrage movement, Sojourner Truth.

“Many thousands of tourists visit the Capitol annually, and when they see that statue, as is, without the inclusion of one of the most persistent, committed and eloquent advocates of women’s rights, it is a flagrant example of historical incorrectness,” says C. DeLores Tucker, chair of NCBW.

Women’s rights groups began lobbying in 1995 to put the “Portrait Monument”—presented to Congress by the National Woman’s Party to celebrate the passage of the 19th Amendment—on display in the Capitol Rotunda, where all the other statues depict men. In 1997 they won permission for just a year’s exhibit, but the Adelaide Johnson creation remains in the Rotunda to this day. NCBW and other black organizations unsuccessfully fought the Rotunda display, however, because the monument includes only white suffrage leaders.

In addition, since it contains a strangely unfinished area—which looks literally like a blank slate for a fourth figure—NCBW began to lobby for Truth’s visage to be carved there.

In February, Major Owens (D-NY) introduced a bill in the House of Representatives, H.R. 601, to direct the Capitol architect to revise the statue to include Truth. The bill is currently in the House Administration Committee.

To sign or circulate a petition on behalf of Truth's inclusion on the "Portrait Monument," call NCBW at (301) 562-8000, or visit www.npcbw.org.

I know that Sojourner took a ferry eastward into Brooklyn, though I’m not sure it was from this landing. South Street Seaport is now a tourist attraction of upscale shops, restaurants and river cruises. The brick streets may be the only reminder of 19th century life. As I wait for the 1:50 p.m. water taxi, I wonder what thoughts passed through Sojourner’s mind as she sat with her pillowcase and 50 cents, watching the same waters. In her biography—Narrative of Sojourner Truth; a Bondswoman of Olden Time—she likens her journey to Lot’s flight from the burning cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.

She’d left behind comfortable lodgings, albeit in servant quarters: a home and a job in Manhattan. As she alighted at Old Fulton Street Landing and saw the fields and farmland of 19th century Brooklyn stretching before her, might she have been tempted to gaze back on her old life, at risk of being turned into a pillar of salt?

Why Brooklyn?
My taxi rolls along Cadman Drive, passing through downtown Brooklyn. It is here, on the plaza of the new federal courthouse, where a statue of “The Striding Sojourner” will one day stand, a torch in one upraised hand and a Bible in the other.

The website of the Sojourner Truth Memorial Project tells how Sojourner became Truth: As she left the ferry landing and walked along a highway where Fulton Street met Bushwick Avenue, she encountered a Quaker woman who asked her last name. Reflecting on slavery, on the new name she had taken each time she was sold to a new master, Isabella thought of how “The Lord was now her master and his name was Truth. She would take His name as her own.”

Fulton Street has been barricaded for six blocks for the International Festival of African Arts. I find the table where the Sojourner Truth Memorial Project is run by the Brooklyn chapter of the Negro Business and Professional Women’s Club, a group which has taken Truth as a matriarch and role model. The Michigan chapter contributed largely to building the Sojourner Truth Memorial in Battle Creek, but Brooklyn is at a much earlier stage of the same process. Although members have been organizing to build a monument for several years, this is the group’s first public event. They are still a long way from raising the $50,000 to begin work on a statue, let alone the $1 million dollars to complete it.

I snap a picture and bid the ladies of the club goodbye, wandering through the lively street fair where vendors ply their goods. I move from the shade to a performing stage when India.Arie enters, cool and elegant in wide-legged pants and pink head tie. She commands the stage with comfortable ease, strumming her acoustic guitar, quipping with the audience and singing songs of “strength, courage and wisdom.”

As I behold her burnished brown skin glowing in the sun, I am reminded that Sojourner Truth was also an accomplished singer with a powerful voice. This could be her great-great-granddaughter standing before us. India.Arie has the same strong features, the same intense gaze, the same unflinching honesty. If she had lived in the 19th century, she might have been Sojourner Truth. If Sojourner were still amongst us, she might be India.Arie.

The Northampton Association
“She was in search of a quiet place, where a way-worn traveler might rest…friends she found here thought it best for her to visit Northampton. She wrote to me from thence, that she had found the quiet resting place she had so long desired.”
—from Narrative of Sojourner Truth; a Bondswoman of
Olden Time

I inched my way through horrendous traffic jams along the New York Thruway. The traffic got lighter once I hit Connecticut, and by the time I’d entered Massachusetts, there was so much free space on the highway, I had to restrain myself from speeding.

After Brooklyn, and after roaming New England by foot for six months, preaching at revivals and camp meetings, Sojourner was directed by friends to an experiment in utopian living called the Northampton Association of Education and Industry. If Sojourner Truth had discovered her mission in Brooklyn, she found her next home in Northampton, in the Pioneer Valley region of western Massachusetts.

It’s a homecoming of sorts for me too, driving these streets lined with galleries, independent book shops, health food stores, vegetarian eateries and the sprawling campus of Smith College. I attended college in neighboring Amherst, and the area hasn’t changed much over the years.

“Here she is,” says Paul Gaffney, proudly presenting Northampton’s recently dedicated Sojourner Truth Memorial Park. A professor at Landmark College, Gaffney’s my guide for a Sojourner Heritage Tour. In contrast to the towering image of her in Battle Creek, this park features a smaller, younger, friendlier version of Sojourner Truth. “The design was meant to be approachable, one that schoolchildren can come up to and touch,” says Gaffney. “Hence, she’s not up on a platform. She’s a bit larger than life, but not by much.”

In the 1850s, the African American population of this small college town climbed to 3 percent. It has never reached that level again. But the area’s relative lack of diversity did not stop residents from organizing to honor the memory of the city’s most famous citizen.

The Northampton Association was a place of true social equality. Like other members, Sojourner lived for a time in communal boarding quarters upstairs from the company’s silk mill. It was a square, squat factory building set on the Mill River in the Florence section, slightly downhill from where a Perstoy’s Plastic Corporation now stands. Some 220 people came and went over the years, including black abolitionists Frederick Douglass and David Ruggles.

“They were interested in the intellectual currents of their day,” Gaffney explains. “Although morally conservative, this was an anti-sectarian, free-thinking community that included everyone from Quakers to atheists. There was no central creed. Dissent was encouraged. Truth found an accepting community here, and she fit right in.”

For years now her son, Peter, had not been heard from, but when her adult daughters joined her in Northampton, Truth was finally able to reconnect the scattered fragments of her family. Even after the Association failed, Sojourner stayed on for 14 years, buying the first home she ever owned, one that remains standing on Park Street to this day.

My Pioneer Valley experience was somewhat different from Sojourner’s. I was here for less than two years, bored and stifled by the quaintness and quietness of the place. I finally applied to an exchange program and spent a year in Africa, a life-altering experience for me. But I now can appreciate the low-key vitality of liberal New England, the transformative experience it presented for Sojourner Truth. She came to Northampton with a vision and left with a voice—a full-fledged abolitionist and women’s rights advocate.

Back to the beginning
They are forced the crops to culture,
But not for them they yield,
Although both late and early
They labor in the field.

I ride into Kingston, N.Y., late at night, in a driving rainstorm. Turning in early for a good night’s sleep, I brace myself for negotiating roads that wind into the hills and mountains of Ulster County.

I’m pleasantly surprised when a youthful 62-year-old man with dreadlocks calls at my hotel the next morning and announces: “I’m to be your guide here in Ulster County.”

Delridge Hunter is one-half of Transart and Cultural Services, an agency referred to me by the local tourism office. He commutes between teaching at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn and his work in Ulster County. Both a Sojourner Truth admirer and critic, he admits: “She was quite an enigma. She spent her life fighting for black people, but she didn’t always get along with them. She reminds me of the old women I had as teachers growing up in Texas. They were very conservative, but at the same time, very race-conscious.”

The mid-Hudson Valley is a popular tourist area of vacation homes and resorts, and gateway to the vast Catskills National Park. When Isabella Bomefree was born two centuries ago in the village of Hurley, these were Dutch colonial farmlands. Slavery was a feature of the landscape in 1797, but it was not the plantation life of the South. Farms tended to be small, with a handful of slaves performing varied duties from farming to domestic work.

Isabella was the youngest of 13 children born to Betsey and James Bomefree. All 12 of her siblings were sold into slavery. Narrative of Sojourner Truth relates the painful memory of witnessing her brother Peter being carried off on a sleigh. She would one day honor her missing siblings in the naming of her children.

Isabella herself would be separated from her parents at the age of 9, sold with a flock of sheep to a man who beat her because she didn’t understand English. Over the years she would change hands and homes several times over.

And she would fall in love with a young man from a distant farm. The relationship failed when he was brutally punished for visiting her against his master’s wishes. Isabella herself would be beaten and overworked by John Dumont and sexually molested by his wife, Sally, the last in a succession of slave owners. She was married off, possibly against her will, to an older slave named Thomas, to whom she bore five children.

By the early 19th century, the American Revolutionary War had ended and the Dutch influence was waning. Slavery in New York was coming to an end. Isabella struck a deal with John Dumont: In repayment for her hard work, she’d be allowed to go free a full year before the official emancipation. When he reneged on the agreement, Isabella walked off with her daughter, Sofia, a babe in arms, eventually winding up at the home of a sympathetic family 11 1/2 miles away. When Dumont came to reclaim her, the Van Wagenens paid him 20 dollars for her freedom, and five dollars for her child. She would live and work with them as a free woman until she left for Manhattan in 1829.

The complicated laws of New York emancipation mandated a period of apprenticeship for children born into slavery. Isabella’s four older children had been left at the Dumont farm in the care of their father, and she received news that her 5-year-old son, Peter, had been illegally sold into Alabama. Isabella drummed up support among sympathetic Quakers, hired a lawyer and successfully sued for her son’s return. Peter returned much the worse for wear, covered with welts and whip scars and deathly afraid of the mother he hadn’t seen in a year. The trauma may have set the stage for his persistent run-ins with the law as he grew into a young man.

The town of Esopus, which now incorporates Sojourner’s birthplace, has a self-guided driving tour called the Sojourner Truth Freedom Trail, which I follow in a roundabout way. In Kingston, the major city of Ulster County, I visit the courthouse where Peter’s case was tried—and won. A plaque on the lawn commemorates this event. The St. James Methodist Church is at the same site, but it’s not the same building where a young Isabella would watch the service through an open window, learning by heart the Methodist hymns she would sing for the rest of her life.

We visit the State University at New Paltz, home of the Sojourner Truth Library. Librarian Corinne Nyquist, a member of the local Truth Institute, provides archival resources to help with this story, and takes me on a tour of the facility, which features several public art projects that memorialize Sojourner Truth.

Nyquist compares New York slavery to apartheid in South Africa, a place where she spent a significant portion of her adult life: “Living under apartheid, you had to create a network of patrons who would stand up for you in case you got into trouble”—a support system Sojourner was able to form among Quakers and other sympathetic whites in upstate New York.

Nyquist also is taken with Sojourner’s power of oratory: “The most fascinating thing to me was Sojourner’s ability to move an audience. Someone like me, who can think of the right thing to say two or three days later,
can’t help but admire that.”

We are directed to Sojourner Truth Park, a serene retreat set on the banks of the Wallkill River. It’s deserted in the dappled sunlight, and we succumb to the urge to linger. By the time we reach Klyne Esopus Church, it’s closed. The Dutch Reform Church where Isabella attended and her son was a member has been converted into a museum with a permanent Sojourner Truth exhibit.

Who owns Truth?
Here in Sojourner’s birthplace, the issue of cultural appropriation rears its head.

During my travels in search of Sojourner, I’d encountered organizations where blacks and whites worked harmoniously to commemorate her heritage, as well as those that struggled over who had the right to interpret her life. Jacqueline Sheehan, a white psychologist and author of Truth, a novelized version of Sojourner’s life, believes these issues “are motivated by the open wounds, unaddressed fears, and continued discomfort that is part of our North American racial culture of confusion. Did I feel restraints, doubts, or special responsibilities in the way I presented Sojourner’s life? Yes. Yes. Yes. [But] are whites taking something away from black heritage if we want to engage either in a scholarly way or simply in appreciation?”

“I think whites have been attracted to Sojourner because of her brilliance,” says my guide, Delridge Hunter. “They think of her as an exception to her race, and that is the way her memory is treated.”

Greer Smith, Hunter’s wife, believes the story is larger than “‘Sojourner Truth, born a slave and walked away to freedom.’ She was a part of a tradition, of an entire black community.”

On the 200th anniversary of Sojourner’s birth, in 1997, Baptist minister Mary Savage delivered a paper that put the black view of Sojourner into context: “What is it that made us come to remember a slave girl, born not 20 miles from here? Was she better than the other slave girls that were born at the same time?… [No,] it was because she was willing to tell her story…[and] we must tell the story if our cause is to be won.”

And so the journey ends…
There were many other places where Sojourner Truth made her mark, places which there was neither time nor money to explore. Northern Indiana, the site of the famous incident in the late 1850s where she was asked to prove that she was a woman by baring her breasts. The Kansas territory, where she appealed for land to be set aside for the use of freed slaves. Cities and towns in Iowa, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, New York, New England where she preached and lectured.

I recall my last morning in Ulster County. In the bustle of the previous day, we’d neglected to visit the historic marker near Isabella Bomefree’s birthplace. The heat wave was lifting. I drove along Old Post Road in a light summer rain. The marker emerged at Sturgeon Pool; we’d driven past it before and not even noticed it. As I pulled to the side to snap a picture, I noticed a plastic bag of garbage nestled against the signpost.

I prefer to let another image linger in my mind. On the way to the spot, I’d been winding through the hills, the overcast sun sketching patterns through the trees. A tawny doe leaped across the road, her fawn darting closely behind her.

A child following in the footsteps of its mother. It seemed somehow a fitting metaphor for my journey to Truth.

Sandra Jackson-Opoku is a Chicago-based poet, novelist and nonfiction writer.