As an undergrad in New Paltz, New York, I came upon that town’s Historic Huguenot Street with its early 18th century colonial-era “Dutch” stone houses. I’d walk the length of that bucolic street to sit by the water’s edge, seeking solace from the injustices of the day. But, because “no one who was anyone” thought to mention certain uncomfortable truths, there was much I did not know about that place I’d thought so peaceful. Not only was I walking the ancestral homeland of the indigenous Esopus Munsee people, I was following in the footsteps of Sojourner Truth!
Contrary to the way American history is taught, genocide didn’t just happen abroad; slavery and segregation weren’t just in the South. Institutionalized racism infested every sphere of American life.
More than a century apart, my walks along Huguenot Street covered much the same ground as her retreats for her now-famous “talks with God”―conversations related in her book, Narrative of Sojourner Truth.
Of the estimated 100,000,000 lives seized in 246 years of American slavery, only 6,000 enslaved people were able to document their stories for posterity—for us!
Of their rare Slave Narratives—court documents, pamphlets, oral histories—Truth’s Narrative of northern slavery is rarer still. So, too, is her ownership of her full humanity as a Black person and as a woman.
A towering figure—not just because of her height, 6 feet―the book embodies her stature as an intellect as she takes command of her own identity. Born Isabella Baumfree, changes her name and her life. Envisioning her role as human rights activist, she becomes a sojourner in the cause of truth. Curating her photographic image for printed calling cards, she says: I sell the shadow to support the substance. Delivering her often-misquoted but no less profound “And Ain’ I a Women?” speech, she demands full personhood. Three times challenges the legal system to accord her justice. Three times she wins, improving outcomes for herself and others. Relating her sojourn in her book, she documents the growing political self-assertion of African American women in their own interest.
And, that’s just the beginning. Unable to read, she dictates her life story for a landmark book that will change the story of African America. Unable to write, she not only leaves her mark, she insists on signing her name.
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In the history of the Underground Railroad, a UGRR agent’s own story is rarely as intriguing as that of his or her passenger—except in the case of William Still, a journalist living in 19th century Philadelphia who became that city’s main line conductor.
New Jersey-freeborn, due to his parents’ successful escape from enslavement, he became an abolitionist and UGRR activist as a young man. Then, in 1850, an Alabama “package” shipped to his care turned out to be his own brother—a child his parents had been forced to leave behind enslaved. Another brother, as he soon learned, had been whipped to death for visiting his wife. From that moment, not only did he document the story of each passenger arriving into his station, William Still and the UGRR became synonymous.
Even after the Civil War’s end and slavery’s demise, he had reason to fear retribution for his role in the “subversive” UGRR. Then, convinced the lives he'd documented deserved to have their stories told, their truths known; he risked his all to publish the journals he’d kept hidden for twenty years. Published in 1872, his book, The Underground Railroad, forever changed our knowledge of that network of people and places that outsmarted slavery by spiriting its victims to freedom.
When he died in 1902, The New York Times eulogized Still as "The Father of the Underground Railroad." That, too, changes the history of African America; restoring nuance and complexity to the stories of our lives. Despite mythic depictions of the Underground as the sole province of benevolent, heroic Whites helping helpless runaways; the tribute duly paid William Still recognizes the historic role of Blacks in our own liberation. Closely-related, the enslaved and the "free" were brothers and sisters in more ways than one.