Construction of Sojourner Truth Memorial Plaza marks decades-long dream

While there is no transcript of the famous speech given by abolitionist and women's rights activist Sojourner Truth, her impact will soon be realized in a public space meant to bring people together, beyond gender and race, in the heart of the city.

Nearly 100 people were on hand for the groundbreaking of the Sojourner Truth Memorial Plaza Wednesday. It is the last step in realizing an effort that started more than 20 years ago, according to Towanda Mullins, who heads the Sojourner Truth Statue Project, which spearheaded the effort. The plaza on North High Street in Akron will commemorate Truth's speech more than 170 years ago on the site of the former Universalist Old Stone Church at the 1851 Ohio state convention of women's rights activists.

At the time, Truth was a 6-foot former slave from New York in her mid 50s. She had been traveling and preaching for around eight years as a champion of women's rights, as well as the abolition of slavery.

Accounts from the time say the state convention was not popular with some in the community of just over 3,000, and that some locals, including ministers, had come to heckle the speakers, but fell silent when Truth got up and spoke.

Accounts differ to the exact content of the speech, which are primarily based on two versions, one of which quoted her as using Southern vernacular despite her Northern upbringing.

Her speech is known as the "Ain't I a Woman" speech, though scholars say it isn't clear she used those words.

Truth Plaza groundbreaking 'like a reunion'

Abolitionist and women's rights activist Sojourner Truth (1797-1883) gave a world-famous speech in Akron in 1851.
Abolitionist and women's rights activist Sojourner Truth (1797-1883) gave a world-famous speech in Akron in 1851.

Instead of heckling, the sound of applause echoed outside the downtown headquarters of the United Way of Summit and Medina on Wednesday. The nonprofit's office at 37 North High St. was built on the site of the old Universalist church in 1916, then purchased, renovated and named in honor of Truth by Summit County in 1991 for the county department of human services. It was purchased by the United Way in 2018. An Ohio historical marker had been placed on the building in 1981.

The plaza was designed by Dion Harris, landscape designer for Summit Metro Parks, and will feature a floral motif inspired by Truth’s family roots in Ghana. In addition to a life-size bronze sculpture of Sojourner Truth by Akron artist Woodrow Nash, other architectural work has been provided by GPD Group. Construction will be done by the Ruhlin Company, with completion expected next spring.

Mullins asked members of the audience to raise their hands to show that they had helped in the fundraising effort, and many in the crowd responded. There were too many for her to name.

Community effort: Supporters raising money for statue commemorating Sojourner Truth's 'Ain't I a Woman' speech in Akron

"This committee has been at this work for four years, but it didn't seem like work to me because this was doing something that I love ... to bring history to life.

"We stand on the shoulders of all those who came before us," she said, including former University of Akron head of women's studies Faye Hersh Dambrot, who had pushed for the project before her death in 2000.

"This is like a reunion. It's been going on since before the pandemic and on Zoom and on phone calls and in meetings," Mullins said later.

"This project is 20 years old. There were two prior committees," she added, noting Nash had reworked a prototype of a statue when a new effort to commemorate Truth began in 2019. The statue will be a centerpiece of the roughly quarter-acre plaza.

International sculptor Woodrow Nash with a small scale model of the Sojourner Truth statue on Wednesday, May 19, 2021 in Akron, Ohio.  [Phil Masturzo/ Beacon Journal]
International sculptor Woodrow Nash with a small scale model of the Sojourner Truth statue on Wednesday, May 19, 2021 in Akron, Ohio. [Phil Masturzo/ Beacon Journal]

Kyle Kutuchief, the Akron program director for the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which provided seed money, said the end result will be the conversion of a former parking lot into a "beautiful public space."

According to Jim Mullen, President & Chief Executive Officer at United Way of Summit & Medina, the project's current cost estimate is $2.4 million.

Also speaking was Summit County Executive Ilene Shapiro, who established the Summit Suffrage Centennial Committee in 2019, the 100th anniversary of the Women's Suffrage Movement's victory − passage of the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, giving women the right to vote.

The Centennial Committee renewed efforts to memorialize Sojourner Truth in downtown Akron.

Shapiro also credited Dambrot for inspiring the project.

"She is surely smiling at what the people and women of Summit County have brought this to fruition."

Shapiro said the current group of dozens of "committed and dedicated women ... and some men" made the project possible, and singled out Mullins for special acclaim, drawing applause from the audience.

"Towanda, where are you? This project would not be possible without you ... you are truly a part of the fabric of our community and we are grateful."

Shapiro also noted the plaza is located right at an entrance to the city, on the south side of the Y-bridge over the Cuyahoga River.

"It gives me goosebumps to think about people coming across the bridge and seeing this ... a tribute to times gone by and a gateway to the future of people of all colors, of all races, of all religions across this globe," she said.

Mayor Dan Horrigan said the city played only a small part in the project, but said the city's assistance was offered without question.

"This is the honor of a lifetime," he said.

The Akron Community Foundation served as the fiscal agent for the project, said Margaret Medzie, the foundation's vice president and chief development officer. She said the foundation is focused on preservation, emphasized Truth's role in Akron history and said fundraising efforts have drawn wide interest.

"I can tell you we are signing receipts from all over the country," she said. "People are sending checks from all across the country."

Brent Leggs, vice president and executive director of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, said the plaza is "a powerful step forward in demonstrating how placemaking can preserve the legacy and contributions of African Americans throughout history."

Once the plaza is completed, the United Way plans to open part of its offices next to the plaza as a community space for educational programming and pubic gatherings.

Eric Marotta can be reached at 330-541-9433, or Follow him on Twitter @MarottatEric.

This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Construction starts on Sojourner Truth Plaza in Akron