100 Years of Trial, Triumph and Truth

The mural, painted in May of 1995 hangs above the staircase in Sojourner Truth Library as a means of carrying on her legacy.

As the end of the semester becomes daunting, students on campus flock to Sojourner Truth Library, otherwise known as STL, in a frantic attempt to make gold out of straw. They sit, they stress, but few of them know the significance behind the name of the sanctuary in which they pull all-nighters.

Sojourner Truth, a prominent abolitionist and women’s rights activist, was born Isabella Baumfree and sold into slavery right here in Ulster County. She walked to freedom, along back roads that are still accessible today, after her slave owner reneged on a promise to free her. In Truth’s own narrative, she explains despite a natural instinct to run, she walked as she left because running would insinuate that fighting for her freedom was something unjust.

Truth went on to change her name, become the first black woman to win a court case against a white person in an attempt to save her son who had still been a slave and become an advocate for women’s rights, reciting her renowned speech, “Ain’t I a Woman?” at the Ohio Women’s Right Convention in 1851. 

Smithsonian magazine included Truth in a list of “100 Most Significant Americans of All Time” in 2014. 

The naming for the place of reprieve for many SUNY New Paltz students came to fruition in 1971 after its creation in 1969. Shortly after in May of 1995, the work of former SUNY New Paltz Art Education instructor Rikki Asher, and thirteen of her graduate students hangs above the stairway, a mural depicting Truth in a prolific light, reminding all who enter of the contributions one Ulster County born woman made many moons ago.

The library acts as the central library for eight counties and contains over a half of a million volumes in its catalog. Some patrons may muse at the irony of having a library named after someone who never learned to read. 

Truth herself is recorded as saying, “I can’t read books, but I can read the people.” Truth, despite her lack of literacy skills, produced and sold her own book, Narrative, which she dictated and was recorded by Olive Gilbert. The profits made by her story were then used to support herself.

2017 marks 100 years of women’s suffrage in New York State, majorly in part due to the efforts of Truth and courageous women like her, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo has taken strides in commemorating the occasion. On Nov. 12 Cuomo announced his newest project: building a statue in Truth’s honor on the Empire State Trail in Ulster County.

Truth’s legacy remains prevalent to residents throughout New York as well as the country. New Paltz Deputy Town Supervisor Dan Torres expressed jubilation at the thought of Truth being continuously honored in the county in which she was born.

“She broke the law, she made people uncomfortable through noting the injustices that she saw and most importantly, she made people think;

Growing up, Torres admitted that Truth had always been an icon to him.

“Sojourner Truth has always symbolized to me the power that everyone holds if they are willing to speak up,” he said. “She is someone who could not read or write, and as a child could not speak English and was once sold at an auction with sheep. Yet today she has a library named after her and is known as one of America’s greatest and most powerful orators.”

Torres took to Facebook to further express the significance Truth holds in the area that both of them grew up. 

“When I drive those roads, I often wonder what must have been going through a young mother’s head as she walked on country roads with no possessions and no clue where her next meal would come from,” he wrote after explaining the history behind Truth’s march to freedom.

For some, Truth just remains a name in the history books. For Torres, Truth embodied the pinnacle of principles New Paltz continuously strives to achieve.

“At her core, she was a troublemaker in the best way possible, she did not like what she saw in the world and anyway the odds were against her she dedicated her life to changing it at a time when doing so could have come at a dear price,” he said. “She broke the law, she made people uncomfortable through noting the injustices that she saw and most importantly, she made people think; she was once threatened with the potential of going to jail for speaking out and she responded that if she was arrested that she would, ‘rock this nation like a cradle.’”