Sojourner Truth Bust Unveiled in Capitol

Posted April 28, 2009 at 6:26pm

Not even the threat of swine flu prevented hundreds of people from holding hands in the Capitol Visitor Center on Tuesday as they celebrated the legacy of Sojourner Truth, the first African-American woman to have a statue at the Capitol.

The memorial bust of Truth was unveiled in the CVC’s Emancipation Hall.

Leading the event were three other trailblazers: Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), first female Speaker; Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who broke “18 million cracks— in the glass ceiling in her run for president; and Michelle Obama, the first African-American first lady.

“I am proud to be here. I hope Sojourner Truth would be proud to see me, a descendant of slaves,— Obama said to a mostly black audience who responded by shouting, “Yes— and “Amen!—

With Truth’s statue, Obama added, “Young boys and girls like my own daughters will come to here and see a face of a woman who looks like them.—

During the one-hour unveiling ceremony, attended by a number of lawmakers, guests spoke about Truth’s journey from being a slave to a defender of gender equality. Actress Cicely Tyson impersonated Truth giving her famous “Ain’t I a Woman?— speech.

[IMGCAP(1)]“Throughout her long, momentous life, Truth was guided by a simple yet powerful principle that if the laws of men conflicted with the laws of God, she would follow the higher law,— Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said. Although Truth was not a woman of means, she was known for having great faith, good humor, passion and an unbending will to do right. “And for that her nation honors her,— McConnell said.

Truth was born Isabella Baumfree in 1797 in upstate New York. She was first sold at the age of 9. Like most slaves, she suffered cruelty at the hands of her masters. When her son, Peter, was 5, she tried to retrieve him from her former master. She endured months of litigation before she got her son back.

In 1843, she changed her name to Sojourner Truth. She joined the Northampton Association of Education and Industry in Massachusetts, a group that fought slavery and promoted religious tolerance and women’s rights.

“She not only made history, she made progress,— Pelosi said. And to the delight of the audience, Pelosi announced that another African-American civil rights activist, Rosa Parks, soon would also have a statue in the Capitol.

Made by renowned sculptor Artis Lane, the bust, Pelosi said, was the “replica of [Truth’s] likeness … her beauty, strength, humanity and energy.—

“It’s an honor that she’s finally getting recognized,— said Maria McLiechey of Georgia, Truth’s descendant.

Truth’s memorial became possible with the approval of H.Con.Res. 86, which Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) introduced. Joining the celebration were members of the National Congress of Black Women, who came in full force, donning fancy hats. One of them was retired D.C. Superior Court Judge Mary Terrell, who wore a polka-dot hat.

“It’s a part of a tradition of elegance and formality. I think a lot of women who wore hats today simply want to memorialize this experience,— said Terrell, a founding member of NCBW.

NCBW raised millions of dollars over 10 years and lobbied for the installation of Truth’s bust.