It's as if we heard Sojourner Truth's plaintive call from the grave, "Ain't I a woman?" A longtime heroine of mine, she has somehow been relegated to a "hidden figure" status in contemporary history. She was a suffragette, abolitionist, speaker, mother, consultant to presidents, leader of a land ownership movement and is one of the most iconic characters in human history. And yet, until recently, there were no plans to include her in a Central Park statue honoring champions of women's rights.
A significant step was recently taken to add Sojourner to the first-ever statue of women suffragettes in New York City. Sculptor Meredith Bergmann, working with the non-profit organization Monumental Women Statue Fund originally envisioned her statue to include American suffragettes Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. This decision was rightly criticized for its failure to feature the African American activists who fought for women’s right to vote, women such as Ida B. Wells, Mary Church-Terrell and of course, Sojourner Truth.
“It is not only that it is not enough,” feminist leader Gloria Steinem told The New York Times back in January, noting that Anthony and Stanton look as if they “are standing on the names of these other women. […] I do think we cannot have a statue of two white women representing the vote for all women.”
“Even though we are making progress, I am sure my grandmother Sojourner Truth would be displeased to see that women are still fighting as hard as they did 100 years ago to gain the respect that they so rightfully deserve,” stated Cory McLiechey, a direct descendent of Sojourner Truth. “With the centennial of the amendment to the constitution that gave women the right to vote approaching next year, we still need to do more for women and minorities.”
On August 12th, the group announced that the statue would be altered to include Sojourner Truth standing alongside Stanton and Anthony. Only five statues in New York City are dedicated to real women, whereas 145 immortalize male historical figures. Sojourner Truth will be the first female historical figure to be immortalized as a statue in Central Park. This revision of the monument's design is a crucial one in leveling the playing field for women of color. To coincide with the bicentennial of Susan B. Anthony’s birth, the completed statue is set to be unveiled in Central Park on August 26th, 2020.
“It’s amazing and fitting that both the state and city will recognize Sojourner’s place in New York history,” said Burl McLiechey, the 6th generation grandson of Sojourner Truth, who resides near her final resting place in Battle Creek, Michigan. “I found out that I was a descendant of Sojourner’s when I was 8 years old. I’ve been trying to spread the word about her strength and wisdom ever since.”
Sojourner Truth is such a seminal figure in history, that even Norway selected her to be the first American female and first black icon to be featured as a “tailfin hero” for their commercial planes (pictured above). In 2009, the first year of Barack Obama's presidency, she became the first black woman honored with a bust in the U.S. Capitol, sculpted by Artis Lane, and on display in Emancipation Hall of the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is an advocate for a second Sojourner monument soon to be unveiled that will be located at the Walkway Over the Hudson State Historic Park along the Empire State Trail in Ulster County, Sojourner’s home county.
“When the two new statues are complete, there will be three public statues honoring Sojourner Truth in New York State,” affirmed filmmaker Lateef Calloway, referring to the current New York statue of Sojourner in Port Ewen, near her birthplace, which was sculpted by Trina Greene and dedicated in 2013. “I recently visited the Ulster County statue that shows Sojourner, then called Isabella Baumfree, as a slave girl of 11 carrying a jug bound for the local tavern. It’s a touching statue of the young girl. Now we need to see Sojourner as a strong adult on her way to making positive inroads for women, people of color and other disenfranchised groups.”
I am currently collaborating with Lateef Calloway, who will be producing and directing an upcoming TV series chronicling Sojourner’s story of inspiration and courage for a wide audience. Gloria Steinem will be serving alongside me as a co-producer on the project.
“When I was in school, we didn’t learn about Sojourner so I’m trying to rectify that for young people and all generations who’ve missed out on her amazing story,” Calloway explained. “So many people need to know about her. Once I interviewed residents of the Sojourner Truth Housing Project in Detroit. I asked residents, ‘do you know who Sojourner Truth was?’, and nobody knew. We need to spread Sojourner’s messages of hope, peace and civil rights far and wide”.
The TV series will show the strength of Sojourner as an influential African American woman of the 1800s. The fact that there were strong female leaders in the post-Civil War era is under-represented in our culture. Sojourner was well-known and respected, especially among the more famous Suffragettes, high-level politicians, including President Lincoln, and civil rights activists of the era.
“Our team is extremely honored to be able to tell Sojourner Truth’s story, in collaboration with her descendants. It’s a perfect time to honor her,” says Calloway.
There were also plans by the US Treasury to put Sojourner Truth on the ten-dollar bill, along with other suffragettes, next year to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, but that design has been shelved indefinitely. Let's hope this decision will be overturned in the near future.