Plaza dedicated at the site where Sojourner Truth gave her 1851 'Ain't I a Woman?' speech

Artist Woodrow Nash, front row, fourth from left, Chairperson of the Sojourner Truth Project Akron Towanda Mullins, front row, fifth from right, Brent Leggs, Executive Director and Senior Vice President of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund back row first from left, Jim Mullen president and CEO of United Way of Summit and Medina back row, second from left stand with others at the unveiling of the Sojourner Truth Legacy Plaza in Akron, Ohio on Wednesday, May 29, 2024. (AP Photo/Patrick Orsagos)

By PATRICK ORSAGOS Associated Press

AKRON, Ohio (AP) — Hundreds gathered in an Ohio city on Wednesday to unveil a plaza and statue dedicated to abolitionist Sojourner Truth at the very spot where the women’s rights pioneer gave an iconic 1851 speech now known as “Ain’t I a Woman?”

Truth, a formerly enslaved person, delivered the speech to a crowd gathered at the Universalist Old Stone Church in Akron for the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention. In the speech, Truth drew upon the hardships she faced while she was enslaved and asked the audience why her humanity and the humanity of other enslaved African Americans was not seen in the same light as white Americans.

Though the church no longer exists, the Sojourner Truth Legacy Plaza and the United Way of Summit and Medina Counties now stand in its place.

Towanda Mullins, chairperson of the Sojourner Truth Project-Akron, said the plaza will honor a piece of the country’s past and help to shape its future.

“It’s going to remind others to be the first one to speak up, to speak up for all, not just for some,” she said.

Before taking the name Sojourner Truth, Isabella Bomfree was born into slavery in or around 1797 in the Hudson Valley. She walked away from the home of her final owner in 1826 with her infant daughter after he reneged on a promise to free her. She went to work for the Van Wagenen family, and took their surname.

Truth is believed to be the first Black woman to successfully sue white men to get her son released from slavery, though it’s possible there were other cases researchers are unaware of.

The statue, created by artist and Akron native Woodrow Nash, shows Truth standing tall, holding a book. The monument sits on top of an impala lily, the national flower of Ghana, where Truth’s father traced his heritage.

“It was an opportunity to embed within the design of the memorial to uplift the overlooked contribution of Black women civic leaders that have sojourned in Truth’s footsteps,” said Brent Leggs, executive director and senior vice president of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund.

Large, stone pillars stand guard around the plaza with words like “faith” and “activism” engraved at the top, with a quote from Truth below it.

One of Truth’s quotes on a pillar reads, “I will not allow my life’s light to be determined by the darkness around me.”

Dion Harris, the landscape architect who designed the plaza said he wanted to use natural materials from the northeast Ohio area that would have been used to construct the former church, including sandstone and stone.

“I wanted to show the industrial side of Akron,” Harris said. “I wanted to show every side of her and capture some of the time of the 1850s when she came.”

Akron’s statue and plaza isn’t the only place Truth is honored. A bronze statue depicting her and women’s rights pioneers Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony was unveiled in New York’s Central Park in 2020, becoming the park’s first monument honoring historical heroines. Another statue of Truth was unveiled in Angola, Indiana, in 2021, at the same place she gave a speech in June 1861, according to the city’s website.

The African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund opened the plaza. The project was funded by the Knight Foundation, United Way of Summit and Medina, the Sojourner Truth Project-Akron and the Akron Community Foundation, according to a release.

“This is not an African American story. This is an American story. History at its best for all people,” Mullins said.