Ulster County Courthouse Honors Sojourner Truth

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By Miranda Reale

KINGSTON – In 1828, a momentous court ruling at the Ulster County Courthouse in Kingston catalyzed the legacy of Sojourner Truth. Born into slavery on a farm in Espous, her legacy of history has direct ties to Ulster County. Abolitionist and women’s rights advocate, Sojourner Truth’s own journey actually began as Isabella Baumfree, her birth name. While living in Ulster County, she was the first Black woman to not only sue a white man, but win.

Last Wednesday, the Ulster County Courthouse in Kingston exhibited original documents that tell the story of Sojourner Truth’s achievements. The eight hand-written pages offer new details about a significant turning point in her life. At the same courthouse that Truth filed a petition at and eventually regained custody of her son Peter after he had been illegally sold out of state, these documents show the small steps that eventually led to a landmark case. For a short time, the records that will be on display is the Feb. 21, 1828, recognizance record issued for Solomon Gedney.

For the past 40 years, the documents have been preserved at the New York State Archives in Albany, and were rediscovered by Jim Folts, head of researcher services at the archives. Folts’ discovery lended vital missing pieces to the creation story of Truth’s life-long fight for truth and freedom. “We knew the importance of this decision, we knew what happened in this courtroom, but we never could find the piece of the puzzle,” Ulster County Clerk Nina Postupack said. “Beyond our wildest dreams we didn’t think we could share these documents,” she continued.

This is the first time that these records have returned to the courthouse in almost 200 years. “194 years ago, the leadership and the passion and the commitment of Sojourner Truth that we honor as part of our larger Juneteenth celebrations. Although this is a positive day, I do think that we have to be real about where we are in our country right now,” Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan said.

It wasn’t until 1843 that Isabella Baumfree would change her name, 15 years after the court case that freed her son, but it is important to note that this decision to do so happened while living in Ulster County. Among those to share the day on Wednesday was Nell Irvin Painter, author of the seminal biography of Truth, “Sojourner Truth: A Life, a Symbol.” She tied together the history of Sojourner Truth with that of Juneteenth, and the wider understanding of American history when she spoke. “Part of our recent history is that Juneteenth is another historical phenomenon. American history, I don’t mean just the way we think going forward, I mean the way we look back,” she said. “This view of American history, of New York history, of Ulster County history, could not happen without what has recently happened. How we see the past depends on how we experience the present.”

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