Remarks by Steve Strimer, May 25, 2008
What a beautiful day! I am here today to tell you about a new project, The David Ruggles Center for Early Florence History and Underground Railroad Studies. We launched the Ruggles Center in April on the 166th anniversary of the founding of the Northampton Association of which Sojourner Truth was a member.
When Sojourner Truth arrived here late in 1843 there were already several African Americans living in this community of abolitionists. Foremost among them, in terms of his standing in the movement, was David Ruggles. Ruggles like Truth came to the Community from New York City but were from very different backgrounds:
He, the brilliant writer, bookseller, prolific publisher, and daring assistant of over 600 fugitive slaves on the Underground Railroad, now ill seeking refuge among supportive associates here...
She, the former slave Isabella, who had been caught up in the scandal surrounding the prophet Matthias, leader of a millennial religious cult she had joined in 1832, now on her own preaching Godís Kingdom...
On June 1, 1843, within days of taking the name Sojourner Truth, a name which had been given to her by God himself, she shook the dust of Sodom off her feet. She began to walk east, a pillow case containing all the stuff she cared to own. She walked out Long Island to Huntingdon and crossed over to Bridgeport, Connecticut. Making her way to New Haven and Hartford, to Springfield and Chicopee she preached and sang her subtle and idiosyncratic view of Jesusís saving grace. Friends in Springfield directed her here, to the Northampton Association, to spend the winter and rest from her travels.
What did Ruggles make of the appearance of this homeless, unlettered itinerant preacher when she showed up at the Community? He may well have read of her notorious past as the cult member Isabella as he scanned New Yorkís daily papers when they both lived there in the 30ís. Two books had actually been written about the Kingdom of Matthias. We wonder why he later bought her daughter Elisabeth a shawl at the Community store and would provide Truth free treatment at his water cure hospital. Little else is known about the two of them as acquaintances. We are left the puzzle: how did two such different people interacted on a daily basis?
After regaining his health to a degree, Ruggles wasted no time organizing Northamptonís African Americans in a meeting at which he presided in 1844. Might he have inspired her to shift her focus and make her first ever anti-slavery speech in Northampton at a second meeting he chaired that same year?
We are awed to walk here, where Sojourner Truth met her foil Frederick Douglass whose increasing militancy prompted her pointed rebuke eight years later at a Salem, Ohio meetinghouse, With ìFrederick, is God dead?î she instantly hushed the crowd as though a brick had been thrown through the window.
Looking deeper we realize that in 1843 it was Ruggles, not yet Douglass or Truth who was the most prominent of the African American abolitionists who made these streets their haunts. His early death in 1849 halted the advance of a new career as Doctor Ruggles as well as his energetic defense of the rights of black Americans. Today very few people have ever heard of him.
That situation shows signs of remedy. Next year Ruggles biography is finally coming into print. Written over the last ten years by Graham Russell Hodges its working title is A Whole-Souled Man: David Ruggles and the Rise of Radical Black Abolitionism. Locally, Linda Ziegenbein, who spoke here two years ago, is writing her doctoral thesis on Ruggles. She plans to show how the life of David Ruggles in Florence was conditioned by his race and his gender but also the ways in which his blindness influenced his social relationships and affected his experience of the environment.
But the reason why I am here today is to introduce you to the David Ruggles Center. Not only do we hope to pull together a complete Ruggles archive with copies of material from New York, Worcester, Boston and New Bedford, but papers relating to all of the early history of Florence. From 1835 when Samuel Whitmarsh started raising mulberry trees here to feed his silk worms to the turn of the 20th century when the renegade Free Congregational Society was reabsorbed in the American Unitarian Association and the peal of the bell of social and economic revolution struck in the 1840s was becoming fainter and fainter.
We have big dreams for the Ruggles Center. We hope to buy a house on Nonotuck Street, have galleries and archives and engage scholars of all ages, from grade school to graduate school. We ask you to join us in making this dream real.
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