January 21 marks the day Americans celebrate the birth of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
Every year on MLK day, no matter how cold it is, historian Steve Strimer leads a tour of Florence, Massachusetts taking people back to the mid-1800s when an abolitionist, kind-of utopian community had taken root here.
He heads down to the former site of the Northampton Association of Education and Industry, an intentional community that started in 1842. Association members lived together, and operated schools and a silk mill.
“That’s the mill river,” Strimer said pointing through the woods, behind where the factory once stood. The river powered the silk mill.
The building was four stories high with a bell tower. Association members manufactured silk thread on the first floor, and lived on the second floor, where there wasn’t much privacy. Dozens of people lived in close quarters.
But every adult had an equal vote, whether they were male or female, black or white. Among the members was a former slave, Sojourner Truth.
“Sojourner Truth was the superintendent of the laundry department,” Strimer said. “It sounds demeaning somehow, but all work was respected at the community. And each of the departments elected their own leaders. So she was the leader of the laundry department.”
Truth, who said God gave her her name, came to Florence because of the association, which admitted African-Americans as full members. Another member was David Ruggles, a freeborn African-American and abolitionist.
“He was the one [who] organized a rally of black citizens in downtown Northampton at which Sojourner Truth gave her first anti-slavery speech,” Strimer said.
By 1850, ten percent or 60 out of 600 people in Florence were African-American. That was the same year Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, which compelled citizens to help capture runaway slaves.
Sojourner Truth began travelling and giving more speeches, including her famous “Ain’t I A Woman?” speech at the 1851 Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio.
Today a bronze statue of Sojourner Truth stands tall, just down the street from the house in Florence that she was finally able to buy for herself and her children. The statue is based on an 1851 photograph of her.
Strimer remembers the first time he saw the statue, he teared up.
“The moment that it was unveiled, the sun was shining in the west and her shawl was a gleaming bright gold,” recalled Strimer. “I mean people’s breaths were taken away.”
Monday morning, Strimer is giving a tour, starting at the statue, pointing out the places in Florence where abolitionists strived to build a place of equal rights and equal justice.