Seeking the Truth: Unveiling the Legend of Sojourner Truth

Photo courtesy of the MA Office of Tourism.

Every day at SUNY New Paltz, a passerby will hear these common phrases: “I’m headed to the library,” “Are you going to the STL?” “Oh man, sorry I can’t go out tonight. I’ll be spending happy hour in the library.”

The Sojourner Truth Library (STL) is the on-campus hub for a lifestyle centered around the quest for knowledge. Hundreds of eager academics enter this sacred space daily, but how many people actually know the name behind the recently renovated building?

On Thursday, Jan. 28, the STL commemorated the opening of their shiny new first floor by paying homage to an incredibly important woman, Sojourner Truth. Associate Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Lynn Spangler presented her documentary “The Life and Legend of Sojourner Truth” followed by a panel discussion.

“We were concerned with finding things that we could do specifically regarding Sojourner Truth, since she is the namesake,” Morgan Gwenwald, head of special collections, said.

The 16-year-old film ran for 57 minutes and the hodgepodge audience of faculty members, community members and students watched with earnest interest as they learned about the once famous Hudson Valley native.

Gwenwald said that Truth lived for 30 years as a slave and when she became emancipated her life changed. She transformed into a notable speaker and traveler; she spoke about abolitionism and women’s rights.

According to Gwenwald this program came into fruition when she discovered that Spangler had made a film about Truth. Gwenwald approached Spangler with the idea of showing the documentary on campus. Then Spangler spoke with some other faculty members and decided to conduct a panel discussion after the screening.

“When I chose to do this documentary on Sojourner Truth guess where my inspiration came from – the library!” Spangler exclaimed.

The panelists of professors included: Susan Lewis, Pat Sullivan, Major Coleman and Ciesta Quinn. Their topics ranged from “Truth as Historical Figure” (Lewis) to “Truth as Christian” (Coleman). Quinn also spoke about her experience acting as the voice of Sojourner Truth in Spangler’s production.

“I’m going to talk about how she was very aware of her image,” Sullivan said before the event commenced.

According to Sullivan, Truth possessed ownership of her own image through her strategic marketing. Truth had a series of photographs taken of her by unknown photographers so her name remained the only famous signature on the prints.

The documentary depicted Truth as a strong spiritual activist with a sharp wit. Originally named Isabella, she renamed herself in 1843 after the holy spirits said that her name was no longer Isabella but rather Sojourner Truth.

“I can’t read, but I can hear,” Truth said.

She remained illiterate throughout her life, never learning to read or write. Yet, she continued to inspire crowds and became one of the first black women to dispute a white man in court and win.

“Almost no one can be unimpressed with Sojourner Truth as a social and political activist,” Coleman said.

Display cases on Sojourner Truth by Gwenwald and SUNY New Paltz graduate Sandy Marsh will reside at the main entrance of the library awaiting enthusiastic scholars until Feb. 9.