Fundraising effort underway for Sojourner Truth Statue and Plaza in Akron
This would be the first statue of a Black woman in Ohio
Artist Woodrow Nash with his preliminary statue concept, now under revision. With him in gold jacket is Summit County Executive Ilene Shapiro and Sojourner Truth Project committee members (from left), Edna Borders, Theresa Carter and Towanda Mullins, chair. Photo provided.
In May 1851, at the Second Ohio Women’s Rights Convention at the Old Stone Church in Akron, Ohio, Sojourner Truth, a former slave and uninvited speaker, raised up her imposing six-foot presence and electrified the audience with a powerful speech that many historians consider to be the most important women’s rights and abolitionist speech in U.S. history.
While the most accurate version of the speech was originally printed in the Salem Anti-Slavery Bugle, it has most often been referred to as “Ain’t I a Woman?,” even though Truth never spoke those words.
The speech and its location could have easily faded from the memory of most Ohioans, but Sojourner Truth’s legacy will live on in a statue and plaza near the actual site of the speech through the work of the Summit Suffrage Centennial Committee.
Significantly, this will be the first statue of a Black woman in Ohio.
The Summit Suffrage Centennial Committee was convened by County Executive Ilene Shapiro in 2019 to unite a broad cross section of Akron’s women leaders to identify a project to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution giving women the right to vote.
Of course, while the Constitution conferred this right to all women citizens, Native American women were not considered citizens until 1924 and state-imposed barriers to the ballot like Jim Crow laws prevented most Black women from voting until the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1965.
The committee evaluated many ideas over several months. But when COVID intervened and plans for a city-wide event honoring the anniversary were tabled, the committee, under the leadership of Towanda Mullins, pulled together its full support toward raising money for a statue honoring Sojourner Truth.
This wasn’t a new idea. Women’s studies scholar and champion, Faye Hersh Dambrot, was working on a Truth statue project before her untimely cancer death in 2000. Dambrot had logged countless volunteer hours as co-founder of the Women’s History Project of the Akron Area, the Women’s Network, the Women’s Studies Program at the University of Akron and the Rape Crisis Center.
But for her death, Dambrot would have assured Akron had a Sojourner Truth statue. Earlier efforts had led to the 1981 placement of an Ohio Historical Marker on the now-named Sojourner Truth Building of the United Way of Summit and Medina, a site next to where the Old Stone Church once stood.
The Centennial Committee began its work focused on funding a statue and commissioned internationally recognized Akron artist Woodrow Nash to develop a prototype.
The project scope evolved considerably when the United Way, with the strong support of CEO Jim Mullen and its Board, announced plans at their 2021 Annual Meeting to convert the parking lot adjacent to the United Way building to a plaza that will host the statue.
This announcement was met with great enthusiasm. As conceived, the plaza will be a destination for downtown visitors and a gathering space to educate and forever inspire all who visit.
The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation has been a key project partner. With the leadership of Akron Program Director Kyle Kutuchief, the Knight Foundation not only has provided seed funding but also has underwritten technical assistance and consultation by the National Trust for Historic Preservation African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, experts in helping communities respectfully and inclusively preserve and retell their stories.
Work by an education committee that includes members of the Akron Public Schools Teaching and Learning Department is well underway creating educational tools to reach auditory and visual learners alike.
The aim is to share the story of Truth’s life: from her birth as the enslaved and illiterate Isabella Baumfree, to her liberation and her religious conversion that caused her to take the name Sojourner Truth and become an itinerant preacher of abolition, women’s suffrage and the rights of all people.
The committee has developed resources to support learning at various grade levels that the public is invited to use, including a film that is in final production. All can be found at www.summitsuffragecentennial.com, a site hosted by County Executive Shapiro’s office that also includes more information about the project and Ohio women’s history.
As the project has expanded from a statue placement to an entire plaza with educational and storytelling capacity, so has the project budget grown.
With the support of generous lead sponsors, the project is halfway to the new funding goal of $1.5 million.
Yes, this is a very large sum for a mid-sized community like Akron, but the resulting project will benefit all Ohioans and will firmly preserve Sojourner Truth and her famous speech in America’s history.
With your help, we can achieve our goal. To donate, go to www.truthstatue.org. The site will direct you to the Akron Community Foundation, the project’s fiscal agent, to make a tax-deductible contribution.
Thank you for helping to tell Akron’s story, an Ohio story of faith, courage and perseverance of which we all can be proud.
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