On May 29, 1851, a woman asked to address the attendees of the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akron. She cut a striking figure, close to six feet tall even without her crisp bonnet. She was more than likely the only Black person in the room.

A procession of participants had already sounded off about the plight and potential of the “fairer sex” during the two-day gathering. “We are told that woman has never excelled in philosophy or any of the branches of mathematics,” said abolitionist Emily Rakestraw Robinson before noting that women were largely barred from higher education. Lura Maria Giddings lamented: “The degraded, vicious man, who scarcely knows his right hand from his left, is permitted to vote, while females of the most elevated intelligence are entirely excluded.” A dispatch about women’s labor from Paulina W. Davis, who would later create the women’s rights periodical The Una, painted a verbal picture of “mother and sister toiling like Southern slaves, early and late, for a son who sleeps on the downiest couch, wears the finest linen and spends his hundreds of dollars in a wild college life.”

Yet the only speaker from that day who attained near-mythical status was Sojourner Truth, a formerly enslaved traveling preacher from New York State. What exactly she said remains an unknowable mystery; the accounts vary significantly. But all versions of her remarks make one thing clear: Sojourner Truth challenged the idea of women’s inferiority. By her words and nonpareil presence, she pushed attendees to see her womanhood and her humanity, categories typically denied to antebellum Black people, slave or free.

a Black woman sits for a portrait
Photographic “cartes de visite” were a new trend in the 1860s when Truth sold these to support herself during illnesses. Her tagline reflected her wit and media savvy. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

The most circulated version of her speech—published by the conference chair Frances Gage 12 years later—quoted Truth as repeating the question “Ar’n’t I a woman?” while allegedly baring her arm in a show of muscle. Since that day, Sojourner Truth has been known almost entirely for the refrain of that speech. Few people realize that she went on to meet President Lincoln, hobnob with Uncle Tom’s Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe and advocate for government land grants for freedpeople after the Civil War. Her longevity as an evangelist and activist—with four decades of work for Christianity, abolition, suffrage and Black freedom movements—transcends the soundbite from the Akron convention.

Today, scholars, community organizers and Truth’s own descendants are working to bring a more complex version of her to an American public used to simplistic versions of the past.

The woman who would be known as Sojourner Truth was born enslaved as Isabella Baumfree sometime in the late 1790s in New York. By the time of the Akron convention, she had become a fixture on the antislavery lecture circuit, with the help of antislavery advocate and newspaper editor William Lloyd Garrison. She provided a plain-spoken, female contrast to the dashing and erudite Frederick Douglass, though like him, she labored to control her own story. Unable to read and write, Sojourner Truth was far from mute or ignorant. She published an autobiography, https://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/truth/1850/1850.htmlhttps://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/truth/1850/1850.html, the year before she spoke in Akron, and she sold copies of it at the convention.

The book shared her remarkable story of self-possession under the most dehumanizing circumstances. After her second master’s death, she was sold over and over, once bundled with sheep as a package deal. In 1826, after her master broke a promise to free her, she walked her way out of slavery, traveling a road through Ulster County, while carrying her infant daughter, Sophia, and a few worldly goods. She similarly walked to the village of Kingston to file a lawsuit reclaiming her young son, Peter, who’d been sold illegally into slavery in Alabama after New York enacted a gradual emancipation law. She was able to raise money from Quaker abolitionists to pay for a lawyer, and, remarkably, she succeeded. The court ordered the Alabama enslaver to return her son, though her memoir describes her horror at his condition: “From the crown of his head to the sole of his foot, the callosities and indurations on his entire body were most frightful to behold.”

an open book with a portrait etching
Sojourner Truth’s 1850 autobiography. The introduction includes a hope that the book will inspire the liberation of “all who are pining in bondage on the American soil.” Raptis Rare Books

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This article is a selection from the March 2024 issue of Smithsonian magazine

And then there was the vision: Early in life, she said she experienced a flash that affirmed God’s omnipresence and her connection with this higher power. That revelation drove her into a series of religious communities. In New York City, she worked as a domestic for the self-proclaimed prophet Matthias (originally named Robert Matthews), who was notorious for dubious sexual and financial practices in his “kingdom.” Accused of poisoning members of the cult, Truth sued again in 1835—this time successfully for slander. Free-thinking publisher Gilbert Vale was so swayed by her frankness—and ability to provide “receipts”—that he named her in his account of the cult’s bizarre inner workings: Fanaticism: Its Source and Influence, Illustrated by the Simple Narrative of Isabella, in the Case of Matthias.

By 1843, she’d renamed herself Sojourner Truth, divinely inspired to “travel up and down the land showing people their sins and being a sign to them.” At a camp meeting in Northampton, Massachusetts, she sang a rowdy crowd of young men into submission. Ruffians and the prospect of racial violence never seemed to scare her for long. She took the risk of venturing into Ohio, where the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was being actively implemented. During an 1858 visit to Indiana, a nominally free state that nonetheless discouraged Black people from settling there, she bared her breast to silence a heckler who charged that she was a man in disguise. A later trip to the state during the Civil War landed her in court for breaking a law that forbade African Americans from coming to Indiana, though she was never convicted.

Her fearlessness and humor ensured Sojourner Truth a kind of immortality in the popular imagination. Her image peered from a postage stamp in 1986, flew across the stratosphere on the wings of a Norwegian Air plane in 2017, and adorned a Google Doodle two years later. Libraries, museums, T-shirts, public housing complexes and a Mars space rover carry her name. She made an appearance on the Apple TV+ dramedy “Dickinson” as a spry 60-year-old who sported a scarlet dress.

During her lifetime, Truth was savvy about her own image. She commissioned photographs of herself when the visual technology was in its infancy and sold picture cards with the astute slogan, “I sell the shadow to support the substance.”

Critics derided her as a “negro wench” and mocked her insights as ridiculous pretense. But Truth was an effective lecturer on the abolitionist circuit. As her renown increased, the media amassed a vast collection of anecdotes, brimming with rhetorical brilliance. Her very quotability and array of interests were both her boon and her bane. It’s hard to capture the breadth of a woman who straddled various movements for decades—much easier to remember her for a four-word quote she almost certainly never said.

In the early 20th century, Black scholars included Truth in volumes profiling great African Americans. She was featured in the 1914 book The Negro in American History and the 1926 collection Homespun Heroines and Other Women of Distinction. In the 1960s and 1970s, second-wave feminists began invoking her in their (often failed) efforts to unite gender and race. By 1972, when her Akron speech appeared in the anthology Feminism: The Essential Historical Writings, the catchphrase had been subtly modernized to “Ain’t I a woman?” The revered feminist author bell hooks used that phrase as the title for her influential 1981 book about the specific kinds of oppression faced by Black women, as did historian Deborah Gray White with her 1985 study Ar’n’t I a Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South.

Nell Irvin Painter, a professor emerita of American history at Princeton University and a visual artist, published her landmark book Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol in 1996, a time when women’s studies and Black studies were gaining firmer footholds at American colleges and universities. But her book on Truth met with a curious critical silence, even after she’d written a string of other well-regarded books. The prominent Women’s Review of Books did not review it. Her fellow literary scholar and friend Nellie McKay made some inquiries at the journal and reported to Painter that a couple of reviewers “had trouble with the book.” In a forthcoming book called I Just Keep Talking: A Life in Essays, Painter identifies the probable source of that trouble: “my insistence, my exceedingly painstaking documentation, that Sojourner Truth did not say, ‘Ar’n’t/Ain’t I a woman?’”

Painter still voices frustration about the way this phrase worked its way into the feminist canon. Gage’s “memory” of the speech has Truth speaking in the ventriloquized dialect that 19th-century white authors often put in the mouths of African Americans. Her version begins like this: “Well, chillen, whar dar’s so much racket dar must be som’ting out o’kilter.” These words seem to situate Truth among the enslaved of the South, a region to which she is never known to have traveled until after the Civil War.

Sojourner Truth wasn’t Southern, and English wasn’t even her mother tongue.

Truth was born enslaved by Dutch-speaking New Yorkers, one category of near-forgotten slaveholder inside another nearly forgotten category: Northerners. New Netherland—a colony that included much of today’s New York State—was once the North American outpost of a global Dutch empire. Ghana’s infamous Elmina Castle, where captive Africans were held before leaving the continent for the Middle Passage, was in Dutch possession for more than 200 years. Amsterdam refineries used Suriname’s plantations to produce the sugar that fed the European sweet tooth.

In 1664, the English took over the province of New Amsterdam and renamed it New York, but both slavery and the Dutch language persisted for many generations, particularly in the Hudson Valley, where Truth grew up. About 40 percent of households in colonial New York City included a bondsperson. Runaway slave ads were sometimes in Dutch or frequently noted the Dutch or English fluency of the fugitives.

In Truth’s upstate New York, wealthy Dutch American families flaunted their slaveholding privilege. The powerful Van Rensselaers of Albany showed off their wealth in a 1730s portrait of a white child of the family, lounging on a cushion. Seated behind him is a Black child or young man whose skin nearly blends in with the background. In 1810, a group of men in New Paltz, Truth’s old stomping grounds, founded the Society for Negroes Unsettled, a slaveholders’ collective that pooled funds for members to hunt down their runaway slaves.

There are other reasons to doubt Gage’s recall. Her version has Truth saying she had 13 children, though she was known to have just 5. (While still enslaved, Truth married an older enslaved man who fathered at least three of her children. The paternity of the other two has been disputed, and one may have been the result of rape.) Gage’s version also has her using an anti-Black racial epithet and repeating the phrase “Ar’n’t I a woman?” as a powerful refrain. But contemporaneous accounts don’t include the phrase at all.

Weeks after the convention, Truth’s friend Marius Robinson, the editor of the Anti-Slavery Bugle, published his own transcript of the speech. Like Gage, he has Sojourner Truth insisting that she had worked and eaten as much as a man, but the wording and style are very different. Robinson quotes her saying: “And how came Jesus into the world? Through God who created him and woman who bore him. Man, where is your part?” Gage’s version goes like this: “Den dat little man in black dar, he say women can’t have as much rights as man ’cause Christ wa’n’t a woman. Whar did your Christ come from? From God and a woman. Man had nothing to do with him.”

three vintage portraits
From left to right: Marius Robinson, one of a few male leaders at the 1851 Women’s Rights Convention, published his own transcript of Truth’s speech; William Lloyd Garrison, an influential supporter; and Frances Gage, whose version of Truth’s speech, published 12 years later, repeated the phrase “Ar’n’t I a woman?” Alamy; LOC; Getty Images

Truth resented being misrepresented in the papers, as the Bloomington, Illinois, newspaper the Pantagraph reported in 1879: “Sojourner also prides herself on a fairly correct English, which is in all senses is [sic] a foreign tongue to her, she having spent her early years among people speaking ‘Low Dutch. NY.’ People who report her often exaggerate her expressions, putting into her mouth the most marked Southern dialect, which Sojourner feels is rather taking an unfair advantage of her.” Those who promoted the “Ain’t I a woman?” speech apparently never got the memo.

Painter remains firm in her conviction that Robinson’s account is more accurate than Gage’s. Truth often stayed at Robinson’s home when in Ohio, and she may have even vetted his version before it appeared in the newspaper. In the meantime, Painter is working on yet another book about Truth, with the emphatic title Sojourner Truth Was a New Yorker and She Didn’t Say That.

Before Sojourner Truth had her religious awakening, she used to speak to God in a familiar way, telling him every detail of her suffering. Then she’d demand: “Do you think that’s right, God?”

Then one day, after she’d walked away from slavery and found employment with a neighboring family called the Van Wagenens, she had a vision. As her dictated memoir recounted: “God revealed himself to her, with all the suddenness of a flash of lightning, showing her, ‘in the twinkling of an eye, that he was all over’—that he pervaded the universe—‘and that there was no place where God was not.’”

Truth was overwhelmed with shame at the colloquial tone of her earlier prayers. She’d always thought of Jesus as a distant figure, “like a Washington or a Lafayette,” but now “he appeared to her delighted mental vision as so mild, so good, and so every way lovely, and he loved her so much!”

Thus began a long string of residence in religious households or communities. These groups were forged in the foment of the Second Great Awakening, when idiosyncratic Christian sects abounded. “She started off as a sort of evangelical Methodist,” Painter said. “And then she was a perfectionist”—a religious persuasion in which people believed they could become free of sin. “Then, she went to New York City. She was with these upper room groups”—prayer revival meetings that started in an upper room of Manhattan’s North Reformed Dutch Church and then spread all over the city. Truth moved in and out of spiritualist circles, befriending people who sought communication with the dead.

“Many Americans are like that, who move through phases in their belief history,” said Painter, reflecting on the 19th century. “But the big thing, I think, was that she spent so much of her religious time with non-Black people. So it’s hard to see her as, say, the forerunner of the Nation of Islam” or other Black religious systems in America.

Barbara Allen, Truth’s sixth-generation granddaughter, has written two children’s books, including Remembering Great-Grandma Sojourner Truth. Allen herself has traveled through denominations—she has been Pentecostal, and also Methodist, like her ancestor, and is now nondenominational. She says that the memory of Sojourner Truth has been effectively secularized because religious fervor has become such a divisive topic. “A lot of people don’t want to offend other people, so they try to overlook that part,” Allen says. “Because everybody loves Sojourner.”

Yet the charismatic language of faith that Truth spoke gained her entree to talk to white Americans with religious social justice bents. From New York City, she walked to Connecticut, where she impressed what her memoir calls “a spiritually minded brother in Bristol.” The man found her so riveting that he asked her to go speak to a group he knew in Hartford, giving her a note to pass along: “I send you this living messenger, as I believe her to be one that God loves. … Please receive her, and she will tell you some new things. Let her tell her story without interrupting her, and give close attention, and you will see she has got the lever of truth.”

By 1844, Truth was craving a quiet place where she could rest for a while. Her new friends in New England connected her with the Northampton Association of Education and Industry, a utopian commune in Massachusetts based on the equality of all races, genders and religions. Everything was communally owned and funded by a silk mill. This suited Truth. According to her memoir, by the time she left New York City, she’d concluded that “the rich rob the poor, and the poor rob one another.”

In Northampton, Truth met Olive Gilbert, who would go on to transcribe Truth’s autobiography in the late 1840s. (Painter describes it as a “celebrity as-told-to” memoir.) She also met Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison, the editor of the antislavery paper The Liberator. With encouragement, she then started giving antislavery speeches on programs with celebrated orators.

Two years after the Akron convention, in 1853, Truth spoke at a convention on women’s rights in New York City. According to an account later published by suffragist leaders Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Matilda Gage, Harriot Stanton Blatch and Ida Harper, crowds of jeering men confronted Truth when she took the stage. “Sojourner combined in herself, as an individual, the two most hated elements of humanity,” the suffragist authors wrote. “She was black, and she was a woman, and all the insults that could be cast upon color and sex were together hurled at her; but there she stood, calm and dignified, a grand, wise woman, who could neither read nor write, and yet with deep insight could penetrate the very soul of the universe about her.”

According to the authors, Truth confronted the jeering men, telling them: “Is it not good for me to come and draw forth a spirit, to see what kind of spirit people are of?” Ever fond of the animal metaphor, she continued, “I see that some of you have got the spirit of a goose, and some have got the spirit of a snake.” From there, she went on to tell the biblical story of Queen Esther, concluding “Women don’t get half as much rights as they ought to; we want more, and we will have it.”

In 1857, Truth moved to Michigan, where she joined a community of progressive Quakers called Harmonia. Nothing remains of the town apart from its cemetery—its residents relocated after a tornado. Not long ago, a postal worker named Kevin Ailes in nearby Bangor, Michigan, was able to find the approximate location of Truth’s former home. An expert diver who’s located shipwrecks in the Great Lakes, Ailes consulted an 1873 map of Harmonia and saw that Truth had owned three plots, including the former sanctuary, in the village. That wasn’t new information, but Ailes cross-referenced that information with deeds and calculated the distance from known landmarks. Using a GPS app, he overlaid his geographic markers onto contemporary satellite images and was able to estimate the location of Truth’s residence—now underneath a corporate warehouse.

By 1860, Truth was living in Battle Creek, Michigan, in a household that included two daughters. Her oldest grandson, James Caldwell, enlisted in the Civil War, joining the historic 54th Massachusetts Regiment. Truth helped recruit Black soldiers, and in 1864, she moved to Washington, D.C., where she met President Lincoln and worked to improve the lives of newly freed African Americans. She served with the National Freedman’s Relief Association and later at the Freedmen’s Hospital, among the first institutions dedicated to the care of formerly enslaved people.

Decades before Homer Plessy challenged a segregated rail car in Louisiana and almost a century before Rosa Parks sat down on an Alabama bus, Truth was chasing buses and equal rights in Washington. Though a federal mandate required the streetcars to desegregate in the nation’s capital in 1865, drivers often refused to stop for Black passengers. In the 1881 edition of Truth’s life story, Olive Gilbert described a time when Truth tried to flag down a streetcar, only to be ignored. “She then gave three tremendous yelps,” the story goes on. “‘I want to ride! I want to ride!! I want to ride!!!’” Sojourner Truth seized the moment and jumped aboard. The angry conductor threatened to eject her. She invoked her Northern origins and political acumen in reply. She was “from the Empire State of New York and knew the laws as well as he did.”

After the Civil War, Truth proposed that the U.S. government give land to its four million newly minted free American citizens. Exodusters—freedpeople who sought homesteads in the prairies—were looking west for land. The federal government owed something to them, perhaps something like the Native American reservations, she said. It was an imperfect proposal—after all, reservations were squeezing Indigenous Americans into under-resourced, segregated territories after profound dispossession—but that suggestion made Sojourner Truth a foremother of the movement for slavery reparations. She advocated in petitions and in song. She often performed “I Am Pleading for My People,” believed to be her original lyrics set to the tune of “Auld Lang Syne”: “I’m pleading for my people/A poor, downtrodden race/Who dwell in freedom’s boasted land/With no abiding place.”

When she traveled to Kansas in a wagon to scope out territory for a possible homeland, a Nebraska newspaper quoted her as she described her mission. “Beneath a burning Southern sun, have we toiled, in the canebrake, the cotton field and the rice swamp. … Our nerves are sinews, our tears and blood have been sacrificed on the altar of this nation’s avarice. Our unpaid labor has been a stepping stone to its financial success. Some of its dividends must surely be ours.”

Truth knew former slaves had no retirement plans and that the aged and infirm were particularly vulnerable to neglect. She likely wondered if she might suffer a similar fate. She relied on book sales, the kindness of friends who sheltered her as she traveled, and the collection plate when she preached. It made for a tenterhooks existence. As Painter told me, “Famous male speakers like Frederick Douglass would have received fatter purses.”

Corinne Field, author of The Struggle for Equal Adulthood: Gender, Race, Age and the Fight for Citizenship in Antebellum America, is working on a new book about old age, gender and race, which will prominently feature Sojourner Truth. She says Truth was keenly interested in “old age justice,” particularly for the enslaved and freedpeople who’d been shackled into forced caregiving. She herself had ministered to other people in both slave and free households, cooking meals, changing linens and nursing the sick. As Field says, “Starting very early in life, she’s thinking about Black women household workers as care providers, and then looking at the ways in which white families target those women for disposability and neglect.”

Field is particularly moved by the way Truth’s memoir described her aging parents and the dire prospects of slaves past their prime. Her mother, Mau-Mau Bett, was scheduled to be sold at the auction block, but the heirs of her enslaver realized that once she was gone, there would be no one to take care of her ailing husband, James Baumfree. They freed her mother on the condition that she take care of him. By then, “his limbs were painfully rheumatic and distorted—more from exposure and hardship than from old age. … He was no longer considered of value, but must soon be a burthen and care to someone.” Her parents found ways to support themselves while living in a dank cellar.

When Mau-Mau Bett expired before James Baumfree, he deteriorated. His owners shuttled him between extended family and eventually freed two other elderly slaves to take care of him. After they too perished, Truth recalled, her father “was suffering dreadfully with the filth and vermin that had collected upon him.” Another older manumitted slave checked in on him but “fearing she might herself get sick … she felt obliged to leave him in his wretchedness and filth.” He was found frozen and stiff with death.

Just as Truth advocated for women and Black people, she advocated for the elderly by showing her age or even embellishing it. Field has noted that Truth “started exaggerating how old she was in the 1850s. You can track in the different editions of her narrative, how she ages herself and in her public performances.”

A newspaper report from one of Truth’s lobbying trips to Washington, D.C. shows the power she wielded as an old woman: “It was our good fortune to be in the marble room of the Senate chamber, a few days ago, when that old landmark of the past—the representative of the forever-gone age, Sojourner Truth—made her appearance. It was an hour not soon to be forgotten; for it is not often, even in this magnanimous age of progress, that we see reverend senators—even him that holds the second chair in the gift of the Republic—vacate their seats in the hall of State, to extend the hand of welcome, the meed of praise, and substantial blessings, to a poor negro woman, whose poor old form, bending under the burden of nearly four-score and ten years, tells but too plainly that her marvelously strange life is drawing to a close.”

By the 1870s, Sojourner was marketing herself as the oldest public speaker in the world. “By the time she dies,” Field said, “she’s claiming she’s over a hundred years old.” Truth was likely trolling her interviewers, who kept asking her age, while capitalizing off the appetite some white Americans had for antebellum stories. (What they usually craved were romantic stories of the Old South, not exactly what Truth had to offer.)

Truth presented strength and fragility at the same time. Advertisements for her talks sometimes drew supporters by emphasizing that she was old and rendered disabled by slavery. An injury to her right hand—which she often concealed in those photographic cards she sold—was her master’s excuse for extending her enslavement, demanding that she make up her lost work when she should have been freed. Truth could marshal sympathy and wonder at her advanced age, even as she showed remarkable energy. Pundits told improbable stories about her resilience. When she finally died in 1883, likely in her mid-80s or early 90s, the Osage City Free Press in Kansas listed her age as 108.

As early as 1939, the Detroit Tribune reported that residents of Battle Creek were trying to raise money for a monument to Sojourner Truth. In 2009, a bust of her was unveiled in the U.S. Capitol’s Emancipation Hall. Today, memorials to her stand throughout the United States, from the campus at the University of California, San Diego, to Florence, Massachusetts, where the city recently installed a historical marker honoring her suffragist activism. New York’s Sojourner Truth State Park, a 500-acre campus that includes vistas of the Hudson River Valley near where she was born, opened in 2022 and continues to develop.

an unfinished statue of Sojourner Truth in a foundry
Woodrow Nash’s sculpture of Sojourner Truth in progress at a foundry in Cleveland, Ohio. It will be unveiled at a new plaza in Akron this spring.  Maddie McGarvey

A statue at the State University of New York at New Paltz is currently in limbo. Hudson Valley artist Trina Greene created the sculpture, which shows Truth at the moment she left slavery on foot, carrying her child Sophia and a few belongings. The statue’s installation has been delayed indefinitely to gather community feedback after the university’s Black studies department protested that its members had no input. Barbara Allen, Truth’s descendant, recently visited the campus and had a private viewing. “When I saw that statue, it really did something to me,” Allen said. The infant Sophia, cradled in the bronze arms of her mother, was her direct ancestor. “Without Sophia, there would be no me.”

This May, the Sojourner Truth Legacy Plaza, a 10,000-square-foot park with a six-foot statue of Truth, will open just steps from the former site of the Akron church. That house of worship is long gone, but a nearby building, constructed on the site of the old church, was named in honor of Sojourner Truth in 1991. The community service nonprofit that now occupies that building, the United Way of Summit & Medina, donated its parking lot and several loading docks to make up the plaza and is now the channel for donations for the $2.4 million plaza construction project.

an artist sits for a portrait in their studio
While working on his Truth sculpture, Nash fueled his imagination by listening to old sermons by “uneducated but inspired preachers.” Maddie McGarvey

The Akron plaza has been about two decades in the making. The idea came from Faye Hersh Dambrot, a local scholar who created the first women’s studies program at the University of Akron. She asked artist Woodrow Nash if he’d create a sculpture honoring this icon of abolitionism and early feminism. Nash took the job. He carved his vision in miniature, about 18 inches tall. But funding for the full statue didn’t materialize for years. Ilene Shapiro, executive of Summit County (which includes Akron and neighboring communities), recalled that at the time, the project would have cost $250,000. “Well, trying to get that kind of money back then was next to impossible,” she said. “And so the project just sat, and then Faye passed away.”

A committee of women and men, along with local groups, kept her vision afloat. In 2019, they revived the statue proposal for the 2020 centennial of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the vote. The group secured the assistance of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, along with Akron stakeholders and national experts in public history.

Towanda Mullins is the chair of the Sojourner Truth Project, and has overseen a community process including the Akron alumnae chapter of her sorority, Delta Sigma Theta; the local branch of the League of Women Voters; and other organizations. She’s spent the last few years going to biweekly meetings. She is especially proud of a 2019 re-creation of a suffrage march in which Black women participated, even though leading white feminists of the time didn’t promote voting rights for Black men or women. In some ways, the Akron committee she leads has been the fulfillment of that dream deferred.

a digital rendering of a aerial view of a park
A rendering of the Akron memorial. Its creators sought design input from historians and community stakeholders as well as artists. Courtesy of GPD Group

Lawana Holland-Moore, the Action Fund’s director for fellowships and interpretive strategies, believes the plaza can be a model of collaborative, community-based public history work. “In so many cases, when creating a commemorative site, it’s a matter of ‘Oh, let’s put up a statue’ and that’s it, we’re all done. This has been so much more than that. Going forward, when we’re talking about place, we’re not just talking about that one site. That site is not in a vacuum. This is part of somewhere, it’s part of the community.”

By the time the sculpture got the green light, Nash was in his mid-70s. He had a stroke midway through the sculpting process, which affected the left side of his body. After that, he carried on working slowly and shakily. “The process is a lot more difficult. It’s like I’m creating this work with one hand tied behind my back,” he said. His work shows Truth looking much as she does in photographs: long robe and shawl, bespectacled and strong. Cast in bronze, the statue depicts her holding a Bible.

Miniatures of the Truth sculpture
Miniatures of the Truth sculpture. Its realism is a departure from Nash’s usual style—a tribal-meets-European approach he calls African Nouveau. Maddie McGarvey

Meanwhile, the plaza is taking shape and is scheduled to open in May. The word TRUTH adorns a stone wall, and pillars showcase a sketch of the old church and quotes from Truth. (The phrase “Ar’n’t I a woman?” won’t make an appearance.) Another pillar will list the names of Black women leaders in Akron’s history. Every student in the Summit County school system will visit the site.

a column with the words "I am woman's rights" displayed on it.
Truth likely never said the words “Ain’t I a woman?” The memorial displays a version of her famous speech from a more authoritative source. Maddie McGarvey

Fifty-year-old Cory McLiechey of Grand Rapids, Michigan, plans to attend the plaza’s opening. He’s a fifth-generation grandson who founded a nonprofit called Descendants of the Truth. He also wrote a 2021 children’s book, Keeping the Truth Alive. Though Allen and McLiechey published books within months of each other—and both are descended through Truth’s daughter Sophia—they didn’t know each other before their respective works came out.

McLiechey learned about Sojourner Truth from his now-deceased older cousin, Thomas, who hung images of her on trees during family reunions. Since then, McLiechey has lent a hand to the forthcoming documentary Truth, about his ancestor. For that movie, which will soon be submitted to film festivals, he hit the road with producer Lateef Calloway. At 9 years old, Calloway first learned of Truth’s legacy from his mother, who considered Truth her personal hero and named an all-women world music band after her. “We went to New York in the height of Covid,” says McLiechey, “and we walked in the footsteps of Sojourner Truth when she went to the courthouse to choose the lawyer to get her son back out of slavery. We went to the home where she first was able to sleep in a bed, and it was pretty epic.”

an entrance to a memorial park
The entrance of the Akron memorial features the activist’s chosen last name. She took the new identity after feeling a divine calling to become an itinerant preacher. Maddie McGarvey
McLiechey is now fundraising for a hologram version of his ancestor. He’s convinced that technology can only help increase Truth’s impact. One day, he hopes that he can “interview” this high-tech projection of his ancestor in front of elementary school students. It seems fitting, he said, that he’d honor her in this way. She was a mover and shaker who understood the power of images, and the importance of telling her own story.

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