Before she became one of the nation’s most celebrated freedom fighters, Sojourner Truth got her start in Ulster County.
Sojourner Truth is one of America’s most celebrated freedom fighters—and a Hudson Valley native. Born Isabella Baumfree in 1797, she was enslaved to Dutch owners in Swartekill (now known as Rifton) in Ulster County. After escaping with her daughter to freedom in 1826, she journeyed into a life of activism, fighting for both abolition and women’s rights. A celebration of Women’s History Month would be incomplete without honoring her life and work, especially after learning about her most famous speech, Ain’t I a Woman?
As with much history, this story is mostly true and partly apocryphal. Truth did speak—in a Dutch accent, which she maintained her entire life—at the 1851 Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio. But she most likely never said the words “ain’t I a woman” or “ar’n’t I a woman,” as it’s also sometimes reported. There’s no record of the speech itself, and the accuracy of accounts of it that surfaced later have been questioned.
There is no doubt, however, that she spoke powerfully and forcefully. “I want to say a few words about this matter. I am a woman’s rights,” Truth says, according to a newspaper report written about a month after the event. “I have as much muscle as any man, and can do as much work as any man. I have plowed and reaped and husked and chopped and mowed, and can any man do more than that? I have heard much about the sexes being equal. I can carry as much as any man, and can eat as much, too, if I can get it. I am as strong as any man that is now.”
With prescient foresight, she closed her speech with a warning: “But man is in a tight place, the poor slave is on him, woman is coming on him, he is surely between a hawk and a buzzard.” The words may not be exact, but scholars believe the sentiments are. Those beliefs were formed here in Rifton and New Paltz, where she lived her first 30 years or so, before moving to New York City, where she worked as a housekeeper and began preaching. Eventually, she became a traveling preacher, telling her friends, “The Spirit calls me, and I must go” and subsequently changing her name to Sojourner Truth. She died in 1883, at 86 years old, and is buried in Battle Creek, Michigan, where some of her descendants still live.
Truth’s life is honored throughout our region: there is a statue of Truth as a young girl in Port Ewen, another statue of the adult Truth at the Walkway Over the Hudson in Highland, and a plaque at the Kingston Courthouse, where she became the first Black woman to win a case against a white man, for the return of her illegally sold five-year-old son. On March 12, 1971, the State University of New York at New Paltz dedicated their then-new library as the Sojourner Truth Library, in honor of her civil rights legacy and town residency. Later this year, SUNY New Paltz will unveil the bronze statue “Sojourner Truth: First Step to Freedom, 1826,” by Ulster County-based artist Trina Greene, in front of the library. To celebrate Women’s History Month, head to hvmag.com/womenshistorymonth to find fun and informative events around the region.