Monument to Sojourner Truth (video)
Her name was Isabella. Her job as a 9-year-old was to purchase two large gallon jugs of rum in the Rondout and lug them back to the Port Ewen tavern. She was beaten severely for not understanding English. She and her family slept on straw laid on damp floorboards in the cellar. She lost track of her 12 brothers and sisters.
She was auctioned off at the age of 8 with a herd of sheep for $100. She was a slave.
And she belongs to the ages as Sojourner Truth.
A monument to Truth
Originally named Isabella, Truth was born a slave in 1797 in Port Ewen, a hamlet of the Town of Esopus, one of a dozen children of Elizabeth and James. She spent the first 30 years of her life in Ulster County.
“‘The Narrative of Sojourner Truth’ was first written down by Olive Gilbert in 1850 and, in it, Sojourner tells stories about her early years in Ulster County,” said Anne Gordon, Ulster County historian and a member of The Sojourner Truth Memorial Working Committee.
“The years in Ulster County, as a slave and as a free woman, defined her character. She refused to let them define her life,” Gordon said.
In 2005, the state Department of Transportation enlarged Route 9W in Port Ewen and created a small park on the old Town Hall site, Gordon said. The Department of Transportation created, constructed and completed the park with plantings, she said.
“Deborah Silvestro, who lived across from the park, suggested the town name the it in honor of Sojourner,” Gordon said. In 2006, the town board named the space as a memorial. Continued...
The Sojourner Truth Memorial Working Committee formed in 2008.
Ultimately, the memorial to Truth took the form of a life-size statue.
“The distinction of this statue is that Sojourner will be represented as the child, Isabella, at about 11 years old,” said Tim S. Allred, a committee member. There are four statues already of Truth, all as an adult, he said.
Allred said the committee interviewed four internationally known sculptors and selected New Paltz sculptor Trina Green for the project.
Gordon said the committee held numerous events to raise funds for the $65,000 statue. But, she said, the project would be still in its nascent stage if it were not for Assemblyman Kevin Cahill.
“We can’t discuss this project without acknowledging the importance of the assemblyman,” Allred said. “He was able to obtain state funds for the memorial.”
Allred said, in the “Narratives,” Truth recounts her duties as a slave to tavern owner Martinus Schryver. She walked two miles to the Strand to buy products for the tavern. In 1801, there were only four or five building there. “It was more of a settlement,” Allred said.
Allred said Isabella, then about 8 years old, walked back – uphill – the 2 miles to Port Ewen lugging a gallon jug of liquor and a gallon jug of molasses.
“The statue of Isabella will be placed within yards of where Isabella herself walked on her way back to the tavern,” Allred said. “It may be,” he said, “the most significant representation in the world of a slave child working.”
“We hope that for children the statue will be an educational tool. They will see a child as a slave,” Gordon said. Continued...
“A sense of accuracy creates the historical moment that’s very moving,” Allred said. Verifying Isabella’s movements — she lived in four places in Ulster County — was a tedious, but rewarding pursuit, he said.
When Isabella was about 9 or 10, Schryver bought her and she moved to his tavern, called the Jug Tavern, in Port Ewen.
The Schryvers were crude—she learned to swear and smoke from them—but relatively kind. She took the ferry across the Rondout Creek to the town of Rondout to buy supplies, carried fish in a basket from the river, and performed other errands.
“We wanted to claim Sojourner as a daughter of the Hudson Valley. Her early life is so important,” Allred said.
The Jug tavern
“Everyone had heard of the Jug Tavern. But, no one seemed to know exactly where it was located,” Gordon said. “We had to find out to verify Isabella’s connection to it.”
“We were looking for multiple proofs, Gordon said. Their research took the form of electronic and paper searches.
At the Ulster County Clerk’s Office, the researchers delved into the real estate transfers between grantor and grantee. They found the 1801 property transfer between Schryver and Peter Ostrander.
“Ulster County carefully keeps its historic records,” Allred said. He said employees in the county clerk’s office are informative and very helpful.
The Internet, however, is a marvelous tool, Allred said. “We wanted to be certain we had the right Schryver,” he said. Continued...
Allred said he tracked down, electronically, the pension file of Schryver, who served in the Revolutionary War. When released from service, Schryver had no documentation so to file for his pension he needed to obtain affidavits from those with whom he served.
“We were able to determine the battles in which he fought,” Allred said.
“There were so few people here,” Gordon said. “Everybody knew everybody and everybody’s slaves.”
“There was no such thing as running away,” Allred observed. “There was nowhere to run.”
When her moment came, therefore, Isabella walked to freedom.
The family was the property of Johannes Hardenbergh, a Revolutionary War colonel and wealthy landowner. The Hardenbergh family and their seven slaves all spoke Dutch, reflecting the culture of the first European settlers in the area.
Isabella had 12 brothers and sisters, all of whom but the youngest had been sold as children.
Gordon said Isabella’s mother, Elizabeth, however, was a remarkable woman, who told stories to her two remaining children to keep the “missing” children present.
“Elizabeth described the other children in great detail in the African oral tradition,” Gordon said.”This one liked rain. This one had a beautiful smile,” she said.
“Elizabeth told Isabella to look up at the night sky. She said the stars in the sky were like her brothers and sisters. Far apart, but together in the night,” Gordon said.
Isabella was still a toddler when Hardenbergh died and her family was inherited by his son, Charles. They lived in the cellar of his house, which also served as a hotel—in later years it was known as the Black Swan and was a popular nightspot before being torn down in the 1970s—sleeping on straw laid down on the wet floorboards and getting light from a burning pine knot. When Charles died in 1806, Isabella was auctioned off for $100 with a herd of sheep to John Neely, who owned a store on the Rondout Creek, about a mile and a half from the village of Kingston.
Neely was a cruel master, severely beating the nine-year-old girl when she failed to understand his commands because they were in English (she still spoke Dutch). Years later, when she was giving a speech at Kalamazoo College in Michigan and some of the students were heckling her, she created a sensation when she undid the collar and sleeves of her dress, revealing the network of scars on her arms from Neely’s whippings.
Allred said Neely beat Isabella’s bare arms with hot rods for making mistakes because she could not understand English.
“Isabella said, ‘then the war was on,’” Allred said, indicating that Isabella was not likely to endure such a beating ever again.
When her father, who had been freed, visited her and she complained, he helped find her another master. He suggested to Schryver, who’d never owned a slave, that he buy her. (Her father knew Schryver, a veteran of the Revolutionary War, from his days working for Hardenburgh during the war.)
“It’s possible her father accompanied the elder Hardenbergh to war,” Gordon said. “It was not unheard of for a higher-ranking officer to bring his slave to perform certain chores, such as laundry.”
In 1810, when Isabella was about 13 years old, Schryver sold her for $175 to John Dumont, who owned a farm overlooking the Hudson in West Park. She had by now learned English, though with difficulty, and she earned Dumont’s respect by her incredible hard work, serving until she was 29.
Dumont “married” Isabella to Tom, an older slave on his farm. There was no legal form of marriage between slaves in New York State at this time. Slaveholders, however, could force two slaves into a civil union and also to “divorce,” by later selling one of them off. She had five children with Tom.
Walking to freedom
In 1826, New York state announced the emancipation of all slaves on July 4 of the next year. However, children and young adults were still the bound servants of their owners until age 27—in effect, still slaves.
Dumont had agreed to set Isabella free a year early. However, when the date approached, he changed his mind, claiming that a hand injury had made her less productive.
Isabella spun 100 pounds of wool for Dumont, which she considered a fulfillment of her obligation to him, then escaped one night in the fall of 1826 by walking with her infant daughter, Sophie, seven or so miles to the house of a Quaker.
Eventually, she ended up in the home of abolitionists Isaac and Maria Van Wagenen. When Dumont tried to take her back, the Van Wagenens paid him $20, plus $5 for the baby, so that she could stay with them. She took the Van Wagenen family name until she chose her own name.
A few months after New York’s emancipation of the slaves on July 4, 1827, Isabella learned that her son, Peter, 5, had been sold off by Solomon Gedney, who had bought him from the Dumonts, to a slaveholder in Alabama. This was illegal, since New York law prohibited the selling of slaves, or their children, out of state.
To help get him back, Isabella visited a Quaker family based in the nearby hamlet of Poppletown, who put her up for the night. The next day they had her driven to the Ulster County Court House in Kingston, where she took her case to the grand jury.
“The questions,” Gordon said, “that we ask over and over and over are – How did Isabella define herself as a worthy person while still a slave? She was illiterate all her life. How did she know, as a newly freed slave, that she was entitled to the same rights under the law? What in her young life taught her these lessons?
“The answer is – we just don’t know.”
To follow up on her lawsuit, Isabella walked barefoot walk five miles each way between the Van Wagenens and the courthouse. In summer 1828, she moved to Kingston, living and working as a domestic in the house of lawyer A. Bruyn Hasbrouck. Hasbrouck, a former member of Congress, and his partner, Charles Ruggles, along with two other lawyers, worked on her case, probably pro bono.
Gedney had brought Peter back from Alabama, but refused to produce him in court, as he was required by law. Finally, Isabella hired lawyer Herman Romeyn for $5 to bring Gedney and Peter to court, walking 10 miles to Poppletown to raise the funds from her Quaker friends.
In late 1828, Gedney finally brought Peter to court. Taking the boy home, Isabella discovered he was covered with scars, having been badly beaten by his owner in Alabama. After taking Peter to New York with her and placing him in several positions, he fell into stealing and was imprisoned several times, before shipping out to sea on a whaling boat in 1839, after which his mother never saw him again.
The court decision in Isabella’s favor was an extraordinary victory for a poor, illiterate black woman just out of slavery and perhaps the first legal case in America in which a black woman successfully sued a white man.
“This case marks the first time a black woman won in court against a white man,” Allred said. “Its precedent-setting significance can’t be underestimated.”
While living in Kingston, Isabella underwent a dramatic conversion of faith. The experience, according to “Sojourner Truth: Slave, Prophet, Legend” by Carleton Mabee (New York University Press; 1995), “drastically changed how she related to other people…she used to urge God to kill ‘all’ whites, and not to ‘leave enough for seed.’ But when ‘de lobe [love] come in me…I said, “Yea, God I’ll lobe ev’ybuddy an de w’ite pepul too.”
After her conversion, Isabella joined the Methodist church in Kingston, which was open to blacks. Convinced she was an instrument of God, Isabella later said her conversion motivated her toward perfecting herself and the world, regardless of her race, class, gender, lack of education (she was illiterate her entire life)—or, she might have added, age: She was in her 50s when she made her first speech as a reformer and continued her activism well into her 80s speaking out on the rights of women and slaves.
A commanding presence—she stood six feet tall, had a deep, resonating voice, and was renowned for her wit. She knew all the prominent political and religious leaders of the time. She traveled from Maine to Kansas speaking at abolitionists’ and suffrages’ conferences and advocated on behalf of freed slaves during and after the Civil War.
In 1843, Isabella filled a pillowcase with her belongings and took to the road as a traveling evangelist. She was a powerful singer of gospel music and supported herself by selling her songs, photograph and memoir. “The Narrative of Sojourner Truth,” first written down in 1850, subsequently went through several editions. Truth died at age 86 in Battle Creek in 1883, active until the end.
But, as Isabella prepared to leave New York on her mission, on June 1, 1843, she decided to change her name. As she later explained to Harriet Beecher Stowe (author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”), according to “Sojourner Truth: Slave, Prophet, Legend”:
“When I left the house of bondage, I left everything behind. I wa’n’t going’ to keep nothin’ of Egypt on me, an’ so I went to the Lord an’ asked Him to give me a new name. And the Lord gave me Sojourner, because I was to travel up an’ down the land, showin’ the people their sins, an’ being’ a sign unto them. Afterwards I told the Lord I wanted another name, ’cause everybody else had two names, and the Lord gave me Truth.”
Editor’s note: Biographical information was obtained from The Sojourner Truth Memorial Fund at www.sojournertruthesopusmemorial.com.
Members of the Sojourner Truth Memorial Working Committee are the following: Anne Gordon, Tim Allred, Evelyn Clarke, Connie Nyquist and John Coutant, supervisor, town of Esopus.
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