I was invited to speak at the Sojourner Truth Awards Ceremony in March 2019, in which 600 outstanding middle and high school students from all over Orange County were honored for their academic excellence and resilience. The event was held on the campus of SUNY Orange in Middletown. The following are my notes from my remarks on the occasion.
Thank you for inviting me to provide context about Sojourner Truth's accomplishments. She was a remarkable abolitionist and women's rights advocate who was born here in the Hudson Valley in 1797.
Dates aren't always the most important thing about studying history, but in this case, I mention the year of her birth because it's related to her particular struggle. Just two years later in 1799, New York State passed the gradual emancipation act, determining that all people born into slavery after 1799 would be eligible for freedom by the age of 27. But those born before that year, like Sojourner, would remain enslaved for life.
In 1817 that law was amended to proclaim that all people in bondage in New York State would be freed no later than 1827. Sojourner's owner, John Dumont, a resident of the Esopus area of Ulster County, promised her an early release but later changed his mind. So she fled with her infant daughter to a neighboring farm and asked Isaac and Maria Van Wagnerer for help. These abolitionists paid the owner for her release and gave her a place to stay while she waited for her son's release from bondage. In 1827 Sojourner went back to the slave owner's home and asked for her five-year-old son, Peter. To her horror, she discovered that Peter had been illegally sold to a plantation owner in Alabama.
Sojourner went to a local lawyer named A. Bruyn Hasbrouck and asked him to help file a lawsuit. (The Hasbroucks were a well-established Huguenot family in New Paltz, some of whom were slave owners and some of whom, like Hasbrouck, were abolitionists.) He represented her in court for free, and although it took more than a year, they won the case and were able to get young Peter back from Alabama. Sojourner dedicated the rest of her very long life to traveling the country, telling her story, and speaking out against injustices.
Although the institution of slavery had been abolished in New York State by 1827 and Sojourner had paved the way for former slaves to seek justice in court, the conflict over slavery only intensified. Knowing that freedom was universal in the north inspired many of those still held in slavery in the south to take the risk and flee. Slave owners in the south responded by pushing for the government to pass the Fugitive Slave Act, which they did in 1850.
William Seward, a lawyer from here in Orange County who would eventually become President Abraham Lincoln's Secretary of State, was a young senator advocating fervently against the act, which would make it a crime for anyone to aid a runaway. After the act was passed, it became impossible for a family like the Van Wagnerers to intervene on behalf of a runaway as they had done for Sojourner. But the abolitionists in the area didn't change their minds - they reacted by creating a local network of safe homes that could operate in secret in what we now know as the Underground Railroad.
It's not a coincidence that William Seward's old stomping grounds around Chester, N.Y. became the center "station" for fugitives traveling on the Underground Railroad. If these runaways were able to make it to Philadelphia, safe homes there would send them on a route through northern New Jersey, crossing into New York State on Greenwood Lake. They would be brought to the house of John Milton Bull on Walton Lake, who would transport them in his horse drawn carriage to the rectory of the Presbyterian Church in Chester, N.Y., where the Rev. James W. Wood fed and clothed them. The reverend would then determine the safest way north. Some people were placed on the "Willets Line," a route named for an abolitionist Erie Railroad conductor who would keep them safe as they traveled to Elmira. Others would be sent to the home of Dubois Alsdorf in Newburgh. Dubois (a black man) and his boyhood friend, City Librarian Charles Estabrook (a white man) had co-founded a marching band in 1850 that was made up of both white and black musicians. Having broken the color barrier in this way, Dubois Alsdorf was well connected to white society in both Warwick and Newburgh and could operate around the county under the guise of traveling to teach music and dance to his many pupils. Once in Newburgh, fugitives were ferried across the river and sent on a path towards Boston. If there was danger along the way, sanctuary was not far, as safe houses dotted the region. Many of them are well documented, such as Vail's Store on W. Main Street in Goshen and Peter Roe's house in Cornwall. Many others were lost to time and secrecy.
No doubt that this period just before the outbreak of the Civil War was a volatile time in New York State. And from it emerged the leaders Sojourner Truth and William Seward, whose actions saved thousands of lives before the war and whose convictions forged the policies that President Abraham Lincoln would come to admire and emulate.
I hope that seeing the name "Sojourner Truth" on the award you'll be receiving tonight will be an inspiration for you to think about how very rich our local history is, and how it can be used to understand society's complexities, past and present. On behalf of the Orange County Executive Steve Neuhaus, I extend congratulations to each of you for receiving this award.
Searching through the County Historian's office files to jot down the notes for this event, I was only able to scratch the surface of a very complicated topic. Sojourner Truth herself had been born into bondage on the farm of the Hardenberg family, a name which pops up time and time again in local genealogical research woven into the family trees of many who still live in this region. In her lawsuit to get her son Peter back from slavery in the south, she was represented pro-bono by lawyer A. Bruyn Hasbrouck, whose ancestor's name was just recently removed from a building on SUNY New Paltz campus. I found references in the archive and online that alternatively attribute the naming of "Hasbrouck Street" in Newburgh to this A. Bruyn Hasbrouck, an abolitionist, or to other well-known Newburgh Hasbroucks such as Jonathan, who was himself both a slave owner and an influential officer in the local militia during the American Revolution, giving up his home at various times to military commanders such as Baron Von Steuben and Col. Timothy Pickering. The more you read into this period, the more difficult in becomes to judge the past by today's standards.
And yet, at a time when society is making strides to remove the names and images of racists and oppressors from public spaces (notably the decision made by The New York City Public Design Commission in 2018 to remove the statue of Dr. J. Marion Sims from Central Park), we are also failing to protect the stories and symbols of the fight for equality that took place over centuries. It's in this way that I am saddened to see A. Bruyn Hasbrouck's name get subsumed by the slave owning legacy of some of his relatives. At the very least Historic Huguenot Street could have helped SUNY New Paltz to develop a campus exhibit or design a course to address the complicated story of the town and college founders. Both of these organizations, grounded as educational institutions, failed to properly educate the students about their own institutional histories. It's also sadly discouraging that society has so far shrugged its shoulders at the A.M.E Zion Church leaders in Newburgh who have recently requested permission to demolish the historic 1905 church, a contributing structure to the East End Historic District, that was designed by architect Frank Estabrook, Charles' son, who was intertwined with the legacy of the famous Alsdorf family. If there was ever a place that could serve as a gateway for teaching a lesson of personal conviction in the face of unjust laws, and putting faces and names to the all too often obscured history of the Underground Railroad, it's this place.
"I wasn't made for the great light that devours; a dim lamp was all I had been given, and patience without end to shine it on the empty shadows."