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"That rang a bell"

If any historic American woman is a household name, it is probably Sojourner Truth who was born enslaved and named Isabella Baumfree c. 1797 in Ulster County, New York. In 1826, a year before slavery ended in New York, she walked herself to freedom, taking up residence with and the last name of a Quaker family who welcomed her—Van Wagenen.

Two years later, in 1828, she took the extraordinary and fearless action of filing a lawsuit to regain custody of her nine-year-old son Peter who had been illegally sold to a slave owner in the Deep South. “Just the fact that she was a woman going up against powerful men, that’s extraordinary right there,” noted historian Nell Painter. “And then you add in race and then you add in class.”

Recently while searching through boxes of documents, the pages yellowed with age, Jim Folts, the head archivist at the New York State Archives, spotted the name Isabella Van Wagenen. “That rang a bell,” Folts said, knowing that that was the name of the woman who renamed herself Sojourner Truth. The court papers include Isabella’s testimony to regain custody and her signature, a simple “X” since she could neither read or write. With the support of two lawyers, she was victorious. Peter was returned to her, although with evidence of having been severely maltreated. (He would eventually be lost at sea,)

I have visited several landmarks to Sojourner Truth in Ulster County, including the granite memorial with the striking bas relief of her in front of the courthouse in Kingston, NY (first image), and the Sojourner Truth Memorial at the corner of Route 9W and Salem Street in the town of Esopus with the statue of her as a young enslaved girl (second image), and an informative, illustrated plaque (third image). The courthouse memorial reads in part:

“Famous slave of Ulster County . . . By winning her lawsuit – the first ever won by a black parent – she saved her son from slavery in Alabama. . . . .Her own words explain her triumph: “I talk to God and God talks to me.”

In February 2022, the governor of New York, Kathy Hochul, announced the planned development of a new state park on a former industrial site in Kingston along the Hudson River shoreline with its 150-foot cliffs and named for Sojourner Truth. “It is fitting, said Hochul, that “such a magnificent property with its cliffs and Hudson shoreline bears the name of a remarkable woman . . . . Sojourner Truth and her message of freedom and equality.”

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