Trailblazers: Sojourner Truth Memorial eyed for statewide women’s history trail

  • Sojourner Truth Memorial Statue at Pine and Park streets in Florence. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

For the Gazette
Published: 10/11/2019 12:18:34 PM

Two state representatives are leading the push for a bill that promotes women’s rights history through a statewide walking trail that they hope will educate visitors and boost tourism at the same time.

Reps. Hannah Kane, R-Shrewsbury, and Carolyn Dykema, D-Holliston, want to see landmarks highlighted that shed light on the suffrage movement as well as on local women from history. According to H.4076, the project’s secretary and executive director “shall seek the advice of local government officials or entities and interested groups to identify properties.” Potential sites include the Susan B. Anthony House in Adams, the Orchard House in Concord, Brinley Hall in Worcester, and the Sojourner Truth Memorial in Northampton. 

Sojourner Truth Memorial Committee chair Carol Rinehart and member Wendy Sinton support the bill and would be happy to see Truth’s memorial on the trail.

Rinehart joined the committee around 2005 when she relocated to the Pioneer Valley from Boston, and Sinton came on when plans for the memorial’s construction were being finalized; the statue was officially installed onsite in 2002. As a former teacher of women’s studies, Sinton was excited to be near such rich history.

 “I just jumped in as soon as I could,” Sinton said recently. She recalled thinking, “‘I’m living next door to an early women’s rights person — of course! I have to go there, I have to do something about this.’”

The memorial commemorates Truth’s legacy in Florence and is used as a teaching tool for students and tourists interested in abolitionism, suffrage and women’s rights history in general.

Born into slavery in New York circa 1797, Truth (given name Isabella Baumfree) was sold from her parents at age 9 for $100, along with a flock of sheep. She remained the “property” of various slave owners until 1826, when she fled to freedom.

Her life’s journey took her to New York City and later to Northampton in 1843 to join the Northampton Association for Education and Industry, which Historic Northampton describes as “a utopian, abolitionist community organized around a communally operated silk factory in what is now Florence” on its website. “Though living conditions at the Northampton Association were spartan, no other place, Truth later recalled, offered her the same ‘equality of feeling,’ ‘liberty of thought and speech,’ and ‘largeness of soul.’”

“Everyone was treated equally. Everyone shared the work equally. Everyone shared the wealth equally,” said Rinehart. “It was eye-opening. It was an amazing experience, and it was something to be here.”

Despite the uncertainty felt by many formerly enslaved blacks in the area because of the Fugitive Slave Acts of 1793 and 1850, Truth made Northampton her home, even buying her own house in Florence from antislavery activist Samuel Hill. According to the David Ruggles Center for History & Education online, “She paid off the mortgage to Samuel Hill in 1854 with proceeds from sales of her books and cartes de visite, photographic portraits she sold at her lectures encaptioned, ‘I sell the shadow to support the substance.’”

Sinton said Truth’s tall stature, commanding speaking voice and beautiful singing tone added power to her unbridled message of equality among the sexes and respect among the races.

“She was a force, she was a powerhouse,” Sinton said.

Putting women’s history on the map

The legislation for the women’s rights trail was originally proposed by former state Rep. Gailanne Cariddi, but after Cariddi died in 2017, Reps. Kane, Dykema and Danielle Gregoire, D-Marlborough, picked up the baton and became the lead filers of the bill this term.

“We also thought it would be symbolic to have three women file it who represent both sides of the aisle,” said Kane, a Republican.

The bill recently passed the House and is waiting on a vote from the Senate.

Rep. Kane says the inspiration for her involvement in the bill goes back to her childhood. When she was younger, she read a book called “Patriots in Petticoats: Heroines of the American Revolution,” which told stories of women and their contributions during times of war. Kane was moved by the women in the stories, leaving her with the impression that “as a woman, I could do anything.”

That sense of empowerment now fuels her desire to educate young people about the history of women’s rights in the commonwealth and beyond, and she’s not alone in her enthusiasm for the statewide women’s rights trail.

“I think there’s a lot of momentum to pass this bill,” Kane said.

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