Sojourner Truth historic marker unveiled in Florence

By Mercedes Lingle

For the Gazette

Published: 06-07-2023 5:51 PM

NORTHAMPTON — A new marker is now on display in Florence which celebrates the time that Sojourner Truth spent in western Massachusetts — one of five such historic women’s suffrage markers installed across Massachusetts along the new National Votes for Women Trail.

The Sojourner Truth Memorial Committee worked alongside Suffrage100MA, a nonprofit spearheading the trail project, to establish this marker at the corner of Pine and Park streets in Florence, next to a statue of Sojourner Truth, a once enslaved person who spent over 10 years living in Florence. During this time she practiced advocacy and social justice work.

The arrival of the marker was celebrated on Sunday, May 28 in conjunction with the committee’s annual memorial at which they honor several high school graduates with the Sojourner Truth Social Justice Scholarship.

The new marker represents a yearslong effort of both the Sojourner Truth committee and Suffrage100MA, an organization founded by Fredie Kay that since 2010 has been dedicated to commemorating the 100th anniversary of the adoption of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote.

In 2020, Kay, who attended the event in Florence, was recruited by the National Votes for Women Trail to determine the best spots to place five markers in Massachusetts. The goal of the project is to recognize and celebrate the diversity of people and groups active in the struggle for women’s suffrage. The Trail consists of two parts: a database with digital map and a program of historical markers for over 200 women’s suffrage sites across the country.

While she was searching, Kay discovered that members of the Sojourner Truth committee, Diane Liebert and Wendy Sinton, had already applied to the Pomeroy Foundation, which funds historic roadside markers, to obtain an official marker for Florence.

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So the three women joined forces to submit evidence of Sojourner Truth’s time spent in the Pioneer Valley to the Pomeroy Foundation. Kay described this process as incredibly rigorous, as the Pomeroy Foundation required primary sources detailing evidence that Truth had owned property in Florence. Moreover, Kay and the members of the Sojourner Truth committee had to convince the city of Northampton to provide upkeep of the marker.

The four other markers that detail the presence of other suffragettes throughout the state include Anne L. Page in Danvers, the Remond family in Salem, Sarah E. Wall in Worcester, and Maria Baldwin in Cambridge. The final marker will be in place as of this fall.

While Kay founded her organization to commemorate the adoption of the 19th Amendment, this project has represented a new direction for her work to go in. While searching for the markers as a representative of the National Collaborative for Women’s History Sites in Massachusetts, she found many options beyond the five she settled on for the National Votes for Women Trail. In the future, she hopes to find a way to fund other markers throughout the state to honor the other suffragists.

Scholarships

The scholarships awarded by the Sojourner Truth committee, founded in 1993, go to graduating seniors in both Hampden and Hampshire counties. The amount given to students depends on the year, and it has ranged from $500 each to two students in 2005 to $1,500 each to seven students this year. Over the years, the committee has given out a total of 56 awards.

Students who apply to receive the scholarship which honors Truth must demonstrate their own involvement with social justice work.

This year’s winners include Kaz Andrews, Aria M. Norman-Gesuelle and Dahlia Breslow from Northampton High School, Victor Cruz-Castro from Amherst Regional High School, Ursa Sekou Shabazz from Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Public Charter School, and La’Tasia Love and Catherine Thompson from Springfield Central High School.

Cruz-Castro, who received a $1,500 scholarship, said that the award would provide significant relief to his family as they prepared to send him to college in the fall. Cruz-Castro received his scholarship based on essays he wrote that detailed his involvement in social justice organizations at Amherst Regional High. As vice president of the club People of Color United and founding member of Poetry Hub, Cruz-Castro had a lot to write about.

Norman-Gesuelle said in her application essay that she felt her “work is for inclusivity and Sojourner Truth’s ideals were to create a more just, fair, equal and loving society that accepted one another.”

Though the Sojourner Truth Memorial Committee and Suffrage100MA have completed this project to honor Truth, both Liebert and Kay agree that, in Kay’s words, “The work is not done.” The Sojourner Truth Memorial Committee will continue to give scholarships to seniors each spring and offer educational opportunities, such as walking tours, to inform the public about Truth’s life.

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