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Akron unveils landmark commemorating abolitionist Sojourner Truth

Bronze Sojourner Truth statue was unveiled in a ceremony in Akron on May 29, 2024.
Carrie Wise
Ideastream Public Media
The Sojourner Truth statue was unveiled in a ceremony in Akron on May 29, 2024.

Akron officials unveiled a new landmark commemorating a well-known Sojourner Truth speech Wednesday — 173 years since Truth gave the address at the Woman's Rights Convention in Akron.

Officials dedicated the Sojourner Truth Legacy Plaza and Statue at United Way of Summit & Medina’s offices on North High Street.

“I can literally take my non-dominant hand and throw a stone to where Sojourner stood,” Towanda Mullins, chair of the Sojourner Truth Project, said at the dedication ceremony. “And this is where we're placing her today. What a celebration.”

The plaza is adjacent to the former site of Old Stone Church, where she gave her famous “Ain’t I A Woman?” speech on May 29, 1851, she said.

Truth, who was born Isabelle Baumfree and changed her name later in life, was an abolitionist and women’s rights activist, according to the National Park Service. She was enslaved in New York until adulthood. Her famous speech at the convention in Akron challenged stereotypical gender and race roles at the time.

“She spoke up for the quest for equality. She was able to get you to listen when it came to those intersectional relationships in regard to race, class and gender, some of the discussions that we talk about today,” Mullins said.

Several elected officials, including Congresswoman Emilia Sykes, County Executive Ilene Shapiro and Akron Mayor Shammas Malik helped unveil the life-size statue of Truth.

Malik hopes the area helps Akronites learn about Truth’s connection to the city.

“As the city of Akron next year heads into our 200th year, people will come to this spot to learn our history and our legacy and carry it forward,” Malik said.

He also sees the plaza as a gathering place for residents to work on issues that are still present in the city, such as public safety and racism, he added.

“In this space - how many marches, how many protests, how many gatherings are going to happen?” Malik said. “The energy in this space today is exactly what I’m talking about when I say that together, we can do anything in this community.”

The plaza is located beside the United Way building on High Street.

The idea to memorialize Truth has been in the works for twenty years, but collaboration from local agencies helped make it finally happen, said Summit and Medina United Way CEO Jim Mullen.

“This is about the power of people and a community coming together,” Mullen said. “This project really should go down as one of those projects that really brought the community together, not just for today, but for what's going to happen beyond today.”

Summit Metro Parks landscape architect Dion Harris designed the plaza. The life-size sculpture of Truth was sculpted by Woodrow Nash, an Akron native.

At the dedication ceremony, Nash thanked the committee for inviting him to create the sculpture and also thanked his wife for encouraging him to continue when he suffered a stroke during the process.

“I would like to say that this is quite an honor to be tapped to do this sculpture,” Nash said. “I didn't think that I could follow through with it, and [my wife] helped to push me through and I want to commend her for that.”

Although the speech is known as the “Ain’t I A Woman?” speech, some historians don’t believe she said those exact words.

Frances Dana Barker Gage, an abolitionist and suffragette, published text of the speech in 1863. Gage's version includes the famous phrase. "Another version was published a month after the speech was given in the Anti-Slavery Bugle by Rev. Marius Robinson. In Robinson's version, the phrase 'Ain't I a woman' is not present," according to the NPS.

Members of the committee that developed the project hope the statue and plaza will inspire Akronites in the years to come, Mullins said.

“We are bringing Truth’s message of women’s rights and the rights of all people into the public sphere at a time when these rights are being marginalized. I am confident the plaza will become a sacred space for reflection and understanding,” Mullins said.

Updated: May 29, 2024 at 9:08 PM EDT
This story has been updated with comments from the unveiling of the plaza and statue honoring Sojourner Truth.
Anna Huntsman covers Akron, Canton and surrounding communities for Ideastream Public Media.