Court Records From Sojourner Truth’s 1828 Legal Battle to Free Her Son From Enslavement Part of 1-Day Display at Schomburg Center

By Lisa Herndon, Manager of Communications and Publications
September 29, 2022
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
 There are three pages of handwritten court records on sepia paper.
Court records from the 1828 case People v. Solomon Gedney will be on display at the Schomburg Center on October 4. The papers show Sojourner Truth’s historic legal victory to free her son from enslavement.

Source: New York State Archives. New York (State). Supreme Court of Judicature (Utica). Writs of Habeas Corpus, 1807-1832. J0029-82. Box 3

After Sojourner Truth, known as Isabella Van Wagenen at that time, delivered a powerful deposition in court, the judge ruled in her favor declaring that the “boy be delivered into the hands of his mother— having no other master, no other controller, no other conductor, but his mother.”

Sojourner Truth (c. 1797-1883) made legal history in 1828 becoming the first Black woman to win a legal victory against a white man to secure a family member’s freedom. Truth’s success in securing her son Peter’s freedom shattered legal norms, challenged gender biases, and became a part of U.S. history.

Newly discovered court records of the landmark case, People v. Solomon Gedney, will be part of a pop-up exhibit by the Lapidus Center for the Historical Analysis of Transatlantic Slavery at the Schomburg Center. They will be available to view in the Langston Hughes Lobby on Tuesday, October 4, starting at 2 PM.

Materials featured will include Truth’s writ of habeas corpus, Truth’s deposition, enslaver Solomon Gedney's response, and the order of the court. 

The inside title of the book, Narrative of Sojourner Truth. The book is open and sitting on black foam cradle. There is a white chain on the upper left-hand corner holding down a page of the book.
The Center’s Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division holds multiple editions of Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave, Emancipated from Bodily Servitude by the State of New York, in 1828 by Olive Gilbert. This book is part of Arturo Schomburg’s personal library collection.

Photo: Lisa Herndon

Curated from the Center’s collections, Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave, Emancipated from Bodily Servitude by the State of New York, in 1828, will also be on display. As told to writer Olive Gilbert, Truth offers an unflinching look at her life and gives a personal account of her legal battle to free her son. The book is from the collection of Arturo Schomburg, the Center’s founder.

The one-day pop-up exhibit is in support of the Lapidus Center’s program, Uncovered: Sojourner Truth's Quest for Liberty and Justice, taking place at the Schomburg Center on the same day at 6:30 PM. Dr. Nell Irvin Painter (Edwards Professor of American History, Emerita, Princeton University), Paul O’Neill, Esq., (Commissioner of Jurors, Ulster County), and Thomas J. Ruller (New York State Archivist) will provide a deeper look at the historical case, talk about its impact on the abolitionist movement, and discuss the recovery of these historic documents.

Dr. Michelle Commander, the Center’s deputy director of Research and Strategic Initiatives, will moderate the talk.

“The story of Sojourner Truth’s life and times—including her battle for her son’s freedom from slavery—is quite moving.” Dr. Commander said. “This story centers on a determined woman who was not only dedicated to her family and close loved ones, but also one who viewed the liberation of and continued care for all Black people after slavery as a personal charge, no matter the brutal societal forces that conspired to relegate people of African descent to the margins.”

Truth was born into enslavement and courageously opted to self-liberate. Shortly afterward, she began the process of restoring her family by going to court in Ulster County, New York, to sue for her son's freedom.

This panel discussion is in collaboration with the Historical Society of the New York Courts, the New York State Archives, and the New York State Unified Court System.

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