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Sojourner Truth celebration honors local students, calls for renewed efforts to combat social injustice and racism

At the annual Sojourner Truth celebration in Florence, where local high school students are awarded scholarships for their commitment to social justice, keynote speaker Whitney Battle-Baptiste said that more than 165 years after Truth began to speak publicly about the evils of slavery, many blacks and other minorities still face a culture of “inclusionary isolation” across much of New England.

Baptiste, a professor of anthropology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, told an audience of about 100 people that both in the Valley and in New England as a whole, “There is no overt segregation, but there is separation — economically, socially, educationally ... race is complicated here.”

The Sojourner Truth celebration, held this year at the Florence Community Center because of spotty rain on Sunday, is now in its 11th year and was originally started to celebrate the construction of a statue of Truth in Florence. The committee that led the effort to build the statue has since awarded two scholarships annually of up to $500 to local high school students who submit the best essays about how they plan to work for social justice.

Northampton High School senior Renee LaFleur, who will attend Wheaton College in the fall, received one of this year’s awards for her work as the president of NHS’s chapter of the “Best Buddies” program, a national organization through which high school and college students form one-on-one friendships with people with developmental disabilities.

Karina Linares, a senior from Amherst Regional High School, also received a scholarship for advocating for the rights of immigrant families. Linares, who will attend Holyoke Community College, said her parents came to the U.S. from Mexico and that she has attended several rallies in Washington to call for rewriting the country’s immigration laws.

“Some people might think that going to marches won’t change anything, but maybe it will,” she said.

This year, for the first time, the committee also made an award to a JFK Middle School student, eighth-grader Alexus Brinson, who has been active with the Civil Rights Team at the school.

Battle-Baptiste said she had been thinking about some of the parallels between her life and that of Truth, who was born a slave in New York State in the late 1790s under the name Isabella Baumfree. She later changed her name and came to live in Florence for about 14 years beginning in the 1840s, during which time she made a national name for herself as a vibrant speaker against slavery and for women’s rights.

Battle-Baptiste, who grew up in Bronx, N.Y., said she has felt some sense of isolation living in the Valley, which made her contemplate what Truth might have experienced when she came to the area. Part of her research has involved examining the history of Southern plantations; she contrasted that with black history in New England, where slavery was largely outlawed by the late 18th century.

“But slavery had its pull and effects everywhere,” she said, and its legacy has remained to some degree in New England, through racial profiling, for example.

But Battle-Baptiste added that she did not want to sound a “negative note” on an occasion honoring Sojourner Truth and hoped instead that Truth’s accomplishments would spur local supporters to rededicate themselves to the cause of social justice. “The Happy Valley is a place where you can speak truth. People do listen and think critically about themselves.”

“What we just heard was a litmus test for all of us,” said Reynolds Winslow of Amherst, who had introduced Battle-Baptiste. “Let’s think of ourselves as first responders and look for opportunities to change [people’s] attitudes, perception and direction.”

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