By Renee Ruwe
Port Ewen - Many people don’t know that the most famous African American woman of 18th and 19th century was Ulster County’s own Sojourner Truth. She was born into slavery but became a renowned and celebrated anti-slavery activist. Records state that she was born in or about 1797 at Hurley in Ulster County, NY. Her name at birth was Isabella Baumfree, and her mother and father were named Betsey and James, respectively. According to historical accounts they were the property of Colonel Johannes Hardenbergh. As a youth, Truth spoke what was known as "low dutch." In 1815 she married a fellow slave and had five children - Diana, Peter, Elizabeth, Sophia, and a fifth child who died as an infant. According to information gathered from the Sojourner Truth Institute of Battle Creek, Truth was sold as a slave four more times until gaining her freedom in 1826.
Her journey then took her to New York City, where she lived until 1843. It was around this time that she changed her name to Sojourner Truth and traveled as an itinerant preacher working against injustice. Accounts of the time say she was a "captivating speaker." Standing at nearly six feet tall, accounts say she had a low, deep voice and was a striking woman. Her memoir was published in 1850, told to Olive Gilbert. In 1851, at a women’s rights convention in Akron, Ohio, she presented her most famous speech, "Ain’t I a Woman." The speech was a short but stirring challenge to the notion that men were superior to women.
During the Civil War, Truth worked to support Black Union soldiers, and after the war she continued to preach and travel. Some of her friends included fellow activists Susan B. Anthony and Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Sojourner Truth died at her home on College Street in Battle Creek, MI, on November 26, 1883. Her funeral was attended by over 1,000 people and was held at the Congregational Presbyterian Church. She is Buried at Oak Hill cemetery in Battle Creek, MI. Her tombstone gave her age as 105 years old, though records show she was only 86 at the time of her death. On her tombstone is the inscription "Is God Dead" from an 1852 encounter with Frederick Douglass. In the encounter Frederick was speaking very despondently according to accounts when Sojourner spoke up, asking Frederick, "is God Gone?"
Besides the institute, Truth was memorialized with a stamp issued in her honor at the Sojourner Truth Post Office in New Paltz, NY, on February 5, 1986. In 1968, May 18th was proclaimed Sojourner Truth day in Michigan. The recent Mars Pathfinder micro rover was named in her honor.
Princeton Professor Nell Painter said of her " No other woman who had gone through the ordeal of slavery managed to survive with sufficient strength, poise and self confidence to become a public presence over the long term."