AKRON, Ohio — Akron-area leaders broke ground Wednesday for a memorial site that’s been decades in the making — the Sojourner Truth Memorial Plaza.

What You Need To Know

  • Akron-area leaders broke ground Wednesday for the Sojourner Truth Memorial Plaza

  • Led by the volunteers of the Sojourner Truth Project Committee, the project has grown over the years

  • Summit County Executive Ilene Shapiro convened the women to complete the project started 20 years before

  • The Truth project committee will work with the schools and libraries to ensure Truth’s history is known and taught

Led by the volunteers of the Sojourner Truth Project Committee, the project has grown over the years, from a statue dedicated to Truth to a plaza that will welcome all who come into the city.

“This Sojourner Truth project committee has been at this work for four years,” said Truth project committee leader Towanda Mullins at the groundbreaking “But it didn't seem like work to me. Because I was doing something I really loved.”

Mullins referred to the many people involved in the project “champions.”

“The dedication and the strength of mind, unwavering attitudes through the pandemic,” she said. “We refused to lose. She's going up. Pandemic, we'll get through it.”

Mullins pointed to the work of the late Faye Hersh Dambrot, who had the idea to honor Truth more than 20 years ago, and to Akron artist Woodrow Nash, who made a prototype years ago.

“And then here comes these change agents,” Mullins said.

Summit County Executive Ilene Shapiro convened the women to resume Dambrot’s efforts a few years ago, she said, choosing women she knew would get the project done.

“If Faye Dambrot is out there somewhere today, she is surely smiling at where the women and men of Summit County and Akron have brought this to fruition,” she said.

Akron-area leaders broke ground Wednesday for the Sojourner Truth Memorial Plaza. (Jennifer Conn/Spectrum News)

Truth was born Isabella Baumfree in 1797 in Ulster County, New York. Her speech is significant because women’s suffrage was controversial, yet she changed her name to Sojourner Truth, and travelled the country promoting equality and voting rights for all women.

In Akron, the Truth project blossomed under Mullins’ committee to become a high-profile site on the edge of downtown. The 10,000-square-foot plaza will be constructed near the former site of the Old Stone Church, which stood on High Street overlooking the city.

The steps are long gone, but according to historic accounts, Truth, an emancipated slave, stood on them at nearly 6 feet tall and delivered her famous “Ain’t I a Woman” speech on May 29, 1851 during the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention.

The site is now home to the United Way of Summit & Medina Counties, which hosted the groundbreaking and will house the plaza at its front entrance.

“The first thing you will see when you cross the Y-bridge is this beautiful, incredible statue done by our local, internationally known artist, Woodrow Nash, on the backs of literally hundreds of women who have stood time and time again to ensure that this history doesn't go away,” said Jim Mullen, president and CEO of United Way. “It is not just a plaza, it's not just a park. This will be a place for everyone in this community to come to learn, understand, have fellowship and gather for years and years to come.”

Sojourner Truth's 5th generation grandson Cory McLiechey has represented his famous relative at the White House. (Jennifer Conn/Spectrum News)

On hand for the groundbreaking was Truth’s fifth generation grandson, Cory McLiechey, who said he has heard about his famous relative’s work since he was in elementary school and teachers told the story of Sojourner Truth.

He also represented his family at a White House dedication by former First Lady Michelle Obama, he said, and was interviewed by the Washington Post and other major media outlets.

“At first, it was surreal to me,” he said. “I told my kids, ‘Now that we are in the spotlight of the world, you have to behave accordingly, to champion the rights of women,’” he said. “’You have to carry on your grandmother's legacy and make her proud.’”

Once built, the plaza will display the suffragette leader’s name “TRUTH” at its entrance. The plaza’s centerpiece will be Nash’s sculpture of Truth seated on an Impala lily, the petals radiating outward from her feet and her right hand extended in welcome.

Towanda Mullins, chair of the Truth Project Committee, addresses attendees at the groundbreaking. (Jennifer Conn/Spectrum News)

The plaza was designed by Summit County Metro Parks’ landscape architect Dion Harris, who said he researched Truth’s history to create a memorial that interpreted her life. The lily is the national flower of Ghana, Truth’s ancestry on her father’s side.

Harris said he is grateful he can show the work to his young daughters, so they can understand everything Truth stood for.

He also pointed to the education subcommittee of the Truth project committee, which will be working with the area’s schools and libraries to ensure Truth’s history is known and taught.

“I think that's probably one of the most important things to me, is that this is going to breathe for many years to come,” Harris said.

Brent Leggs, executive director of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund and senior vice president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, said preserving and protecting places associated with Black Americans creates a more accurate American story.

“These cultural sites anchor us and expand our sense of pride,” he said. “Historic preservation as urban regeneration is both a kind of cultural repair and revitalization strategy for the rebirth of one's last historic Black neighborhoods and communities.”

(Left to right) Summit County Councilwoman Veronica Sims, Mayor Dan Horrigan, Cory McLiechey, County Executive Ilene Shapiro and Towanda Mullins. (Jennifer Conn/Spectrum News)

Kyle Kutuchief, Akron program director for the Knight Foundation, helped connect the Truth Project Committee with Leggs’ organization. Kutuchief said he had heard Leggs speak at a Knight Foundation event, and was struck by his “clarity of vision” and “history brought to life by their interpretation that tells the full story.”

At the same time, Kutuchief was learning about the goals of the Truth committee and decided to connect the groups.

“Would a national leader in the preservation and protection of places overlooked in American history that represents centuries of African-American activism, achievement and resilience be willing to choose our city, this place?” he said. “And would a committee of local leaders who have been working hard for years be open to a new partnership? Yep. The answer is yes. And here we are.”

Mullins encouraged those in attendance to become involved in the work, to donate or engage their organizations to donate.

“Sojourner Truth in 1851 and before that, was able to articulate the intersectional relationships when it came to the oppressed, identities of class, gender, race, voting rights, and the story goes on and on,” she said. “Be sure that you take the opportunity to be a part of history.”