Celebration honors Sojourner Truth for voting rights fight

  • Glenna Forgue, 22, places an “I Voted” sticker on the Sojourner Truth statue in downtown Northampton on Tuesday during the VoteTruth Committee’s celebration of the activist’s fight for women’s suffrage. STAFF PHOTOS/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Joseph Lopez and Libnaliz Mendoza, students from Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School in Chicopee, perform during the event Tuesday. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 11/5/2019 5:42:29 PM

NORTHAMPTON — As voters headed to the polls Tuesday, around 100 people gathered at the Sojourner Truth Memorial in Florence to honor the abolitionist and women’s rights activist with the beginning of a new tradition.

Truth, who escaped from slavery with her infant daughter in 1826 and lived in Florence during the mid-1800s, gave her first anti-slavery speech in a long career of activism in downtown Northampton in 1844. But despite Truth’s instrumental role in advocating for women’s suffrage — particularly suffrage for women of color — she has sometimes been overlooked while white suffragists such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton are celebrated for their roles in bringing voting rights to women. 

Drawing from a tradition where admirers of Anthony and Cady Stanton have placed “I Voted” stickers on the activists’ gravestones on Election Day, attendees stuck “I Voted” stickers on a sash wrapped around the statue of Truth at the corner of Park and Pine streets in Florence.

“Sojourner was a prayerful woman,” said Rose Sackey-Milligan of the VoteTruth Committee, the event’s main organizer. “Prayerful, and we are living in her answered prayers in this moment. She prayed for all women to find their power.”

The gathering, which organizers plan to hold on an annual basis, also featured speakers including activist Loretta Ross, state Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa and state Sen. Jo Comerford, and performances by students from the Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School in Chicopee.

Truth was “a strong link in the chain of freedom,” said Ross, a renowned feminist and visiting professor at Smith College. This chain continues as “part of an intergeneration experience,” she added, where activists “bring what you need from the past to the present so you can build a better future.”

“This is what we do, and this is what black women have done all along,” Ross said, adding that the fight for equality in voting rights continues today.

Comerford spoke of Truth as a woman who “fused her own life with the promise of suffrage.”

“For Truth, suffrage wasn’t just a right that she wanted personally and dearly, though it was,” Comerford said. “It wasn’t just a right to ensure women’s well-being, of course, though it was. Sojourner Truth realized that voting for women would lift up what she called the whole creation.”

Sabadosa highlighted the gathering as one that stands out from the similar traditions held for Anthony and Cady Stanton — figures whom Sabadosa said she regarded as heroes during her childhood. She said she later learned “that some of the people I considered heroes were not as perfect as I thought,” leading to conflicted thoughts on such traditions. 

But the gathering for Truth “felt like we’re maybe doing something that honored the full story of the past,” Sabadosa said. “And that’s something we need to spend more time doing — honoring the full story, not just the part that sounds good or makes us feel good.”

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