WASHINGTON (FinalCall.com) – After a nearly 13-year struggle, “Truth” has been firmly established at the United States Capitol.
A bronze bust of abolitionist and women’s suffragist Isabella Baumfree–who began calling herself “Sojourner Truth” at age 46–was unveiled in Emancipation Hall of the U.S. Capitol Visitor’s Center April 28, finally establishing the “Truth” of the struggle of many Black women at the seat of Congress.
The event marked drastic changes in American life in the 126 years since Sojourner Truth’s death, and since a dedicated group of Black women began to fight in October 1996 to have her recognized with a statue in the Capitol, along with those of White women’s rights advocates.
The ceremony was headed by women who’ve reached unprecedented heights: Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, the first woman in that position; Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who succeeded the first woman in that post; and Michelle Obama, like Mrs. Truth, herself a descendant of slaves.
“I hope that Sojourner Truth would be proud to see me, a descendant of slaves, serving as first lady of the United States,” Mrs. Obama told the crowd of more than 1,000. She said she is glad that Black children touring the Capitol–“boys and girls like my own daughters”–could now “come to Emancipation Hall and see the face of a woman who looks like them.”
Mrs. Truth was an early crusader for women’s right to vote and for an end to slavery. She met presidents Abraham Lincoln in 1864 and Ulysses S. Grant in 1870. She delivered her signature speech: “Ain’t I A Woman?” at a women’s rights convention in Akron, Ohio, in 1851. She died in November 1883 at her home in Battle Creek, Mich.
Oscar award-winning actress Cicely Tyson performed the “Ain’t I A Woman?” speech, receiving a prolonged standing ovation from the mostly female, mostly Black audience, which was organized by the National Congress of Black Women.
The struggle began with the late Dr. C. DeLores Tucker, founder and former chair of NCBW. Dr. Tucker originally wanted to add Mrs. Truth’s likeness to the eight-ton, marble, “Portrait Monument,” statues of the White heroines of the women’s suffrage movement Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
When that campaign failed in 1997, Dr. Tucker famously condemned the White, marble statue, saying it had been “chiseled in hate,” because a portion of the stone where NCBW wanted Mrs. Truth’s likeness to be hewn remained formless.
Later, a plan for Mrs. Truth to have a stand-alone bust in the Capitol was approved by Congress in 2006. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) and then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) were the key sponsors of that legislation. The bill was signed into law by President George W. Bush.
The resulting bust–featuring Mrs. Truth wearing her trademark bonnet–was created by California-based sculptor Artis Lane. Behind the leadership of Dr. E. Faye Williams, who succeeded Dr. Tucker when she died in 2005, NCBW raised more than $500,000–often in $1 and $5 contributions–to pay for the final installation.
“This has been an awesome day for women, especially Black women today, because we know that like our struggles, Sojourner before us struggled to make sure that we would be free from the shackles of slavery. We’re so delighted that we were able to lead in this effort to put the first Black woman in the United States Capitol, and we’re even prouder that we had our own first lady, who looks like us here today to unveil that statue,” Dr. Williams told The Final Call.
“It took the work of all these women here who are gathered around me,” she continued, “the members of the National Congress of Black Women, out on street corners, out in parking lots, going to schools, working, begging, pleading, just for ‘A dollar for Truth,’ and fortunately many people gave it up.”
President Obama’s family was the largest personal donor to the effort, said Dr. Williams, along with Black women’s social organizations including Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, and The Links.
“This is a day that words cannot describe,” William Tucker, husband and constant companion of Dr. Tucker in life and in her work, told The Final Call.
“The fulfillment of this day, fulfilling all the hopes and the dreams, the aspiration, the hard work, the labor and the toil of my dear late wife–C. Delores Tucker–this is fulfillment of all of that agony and toil of her life, that she toiled so hard for.
“Almost up until her death, her dying moments, she was concerned about this day: Sojourner Truth taking her place in this Capitol to undue the wrongs that history had committed on our people,” Mr. Tucker continued. “She was determined and dedicated to doing that, committed to doing that. Today is a fulfillment of all of that.”
Mrs. Truth’s life was an inspiration, several speakers, including both the Democratic and Republican leaders of the House and the Senate told the audience. Her original owners spoke only Dutch. The young Isabella Baumfree learned English when she was 10 years old. As a slave she suffered beatings and abuse, and was once sold for $100 “and a herd of sheep.”
Mrs. Truth later gained her freedom and changed her name to reflect her personal journey. When she left her owner after he failed to keep his agreement to allow her to work to earn her freedom, she later declared, “I did not run off, for I thought that wicked, but I walked off, believing that to be all right.”
“If women want any rights more than they’s got, why don’t they just take them, and not be talking about it,” she once said.