Friday, September 11, 2009

Sojourner Truth On Canal Street

below, a current view of the site of Sojourner Truth's former home

from Columbia's Mapping African American History Site
In 1797, a baby girl named Isabella was born in upstate New York. Her parents were Elizabeth and James Baumfree, but she was the property of their Dutch master, who sold her off at the age of 9. By the time she was 12, she had been sold two more times. When slavery was outlawed in New York, Isabella was 30 years old, the mother of four surviving children, and finally free to leave. She reached New York City in 1829 and joined the Mother AME Zion Church. Known as a preacher and prophet, she spent 14 years in the city before suddenly declaring, “The Spirit calls me there and I must go.” That day in 1843 she left to travel the land and spread the Lord’s word as Sojourner Truth.
Sojourner Truth traveled throughout New England and as far west as Kansas. When she spoke, everyone listened—even the hecklers. She gave her most famous speech at a women’s rights convention in Ohio. As one there remembered it, the hecklers were hissing but, “At her first word there was a profound hush.” When one man called women “weak,” Truth looked him in the eye and in her low voice said, “I could work as much and eat as much as a man (when I could get it), and bear the lash as well -- and ain’t I a woman?” Another time she stopped the hissing with “…we’ll have our rights; see if we don't: and you can’t stop us from them; see if you can. You may hiss as much as you like, but it is comin’.” While living in New York City, Isabella Baumfree became Sojourner Truth and left her home at 74 Canal Street to spread the “Lord’s truth.” She became a legend in her own time. Sojourner Truth died in 1883 in Battle Creek, Michigan. Her funeral was said to be the largest ever seen there.

an excerpt from from Ms. Magazine by Sandra Jackson-Opoku
When she arrived in 1827 Manhattan from Ulster County, N.Y., where she was born, Sojourner Truth still carried the name Isabella Van Wagenen. She would have encountered a black community in Manhattan that had been there for more than a century, some of its members native Dutch speakers like herself. During her 14 years in New York City she would work as a domestic in several households, worship at several churches, engage in informal religious studies and evangelize at a home for reformed prostitutes.
Much of Isabella’s time and energy at first was devoted to keeping her son, Peter, out of trouble, a trial with which I can identify. We’ve both mothered sons under adversity: I’m a single parent, and Isabella, whose child had been stolen away and illegally sold, fought to get him back and keep him out of harm’s way. Sojourner Truth had four daughters too, but in reading about her life we learn much more about her son.
While in Manhattan, Isabella was drawn into a religious cult led by charismatic misogynist Robert Matthias. She moved to Westchester County when the cult established a commune in the town of Sing Sing (now Ossining), where the famed prison had just been built. The Kingdom of Matthias would eventually disband under a cloud of scandal, but not before Isabella had been economically, physically and sexually exploited. But she fought back: In a series of sensational court cases, she sued former members for slander, took her meager award and returned to Manhattan.
Her teenaged son had been running amok during her absence: gambling, thieving, loitering—even impersonating an Episcopal minister. With her encouragement, Peter shipped out of Nantucket on a whaling vessel. It would be the last time she would see him.
Over the next nine years, her political consciousness grew. She tells of being given 50 cents to pay a worker to clean snow from the steps of the household in which she worked. Instead of paying him, she pocketed the money and cleaned the steps herself. She became wracked with guilt over her own greed, and over economic injustice in general.
In 1843, Isabella had a sudden revelation that she must go “into the east” because “the spirit calls me there.” Her name would be Sojourner, her mission to travel the land and speak the word of God. Giving the mistress of the household an hour’s notice, she set out from 74 Canal St. in lower Manhattan with a few belongings in a pillow case and two New York shillings to her name.
In the spirit of that sojourn, I decide to follow the route she took on the morning of June 1, 1843—the day that changed her name and defined her life.
I take the N train south from Chelsea, where I’m staying, get off at Canal Street and emerge into the heated hustling of Chinatown. The street is lined on both sides with independent vendors and crowded shops, hawking everything from designer knock-offs to plastic trinkets, cheap electronics to fresh lychees. I elbow my way past Mulberry, Mott, Elizabeth, Bowery, and Chrystie Streets, stopping to buy coconut water in the shell from a Chinese vendor.
As I trudge past the looming Gothic structure of the Manhattan Bridge down to Eldridge Street, the throngs of humanity diminish. I discover that 74 Canal St. is now Fong’s Trading, an Asian import shop with a wooden display of dusty curios out front. I purchase two embroidered Thai bags, clearance-priced. The sales clerk, who says he isn’t Mr. Fong, urges me to buy more.
“Only five dollars,” he wheedles. “Very good price.”
The sales clerk has never heard of Sojourner Truth, much less imagined she had lived on this very spot, though it is possible that the street boundaries and addresses have changed over the past 160 years.
From here, the newly named Sojourner had walked several miles south to a ferry landing. Being a weak and overheated 21st century woman, I walk to Allen Street and step into the M bus, which careens onto Madison Avenue, narrowly avoiding a collision with a Chinese delivery truck. On Pearl Street, past FDR Drive, Chinatown transitions into a tonier neighborhood of office buildings, boutiques and high-rise condos.


Anonymous said...

My grandparents Alexandria and Jacob Sotinsky rented the 3rd floor apartment at 74 Canal Street from the 1920's through the 1970's. They were immigrants from Zolochiv, Ukraine. I recently entered the building to recover my past. Two Chinese men asked me what I wanted as I stood outside the entry door to my grandparents' apartment. I desperately wanted the past back; I wanted to live my childhood all over again. Yet we vanish like dreams. What seemed eternal, is gone.

Anonymous said...

According to the building records, 74 Canal Street wasn't built until 1910. It wasn't a bad tenement as tenements go. Unlike my mother's parents' tenement at 19 Essex and then later at 38 Orchard, 74 Canal had a bathroom in the apartment and not in the hallway to be shared with another family. Still, for a family of 10, 1 bathroom was a luxury many other tenement dwellers didn't have. My mother's family had a bathtub in the kitchen, which when not in use, was used as a center island to prepare food on.
So my point here is that the 74 Canal Street address that the writer visited was not the same tenement the former slave lived in.