Towanda Mullins spent the morning of May 29 praying rainy weather would subside in time for the unveiling of a plaza and statue in honor of activist Sojourner Truth. Mullins, chairperson of the Sojourner Truth Project-Akron, had been working on the project for more than five years. As an Akron, Ohio, native however, she’s been aware of Truth’s legacy and the historic impact of the abolitionist’s “Ain’t I A Woman?” speech for much of her life.

Truth delivered the speech on May 29, 1851, at the Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, just a stone’s throw away from the location of the new Sojourner Truth Legacy Plaza. Although the specifics of the speech have been debated – and some believe the famous “Ain’t I A Woman?” refrain wasn’t even uttered by Truth – it has endured as a seminal moment in history because of the unabashed way in which she advocated for racial and gender equality during a time when Black women were largely left out of the women’s suffrage movement.

The United Way of Summit and Medina, which owns the space where the new plaza was constructed, stated that this is the first historic space in the city that “directly reflects and honors the Black woman’s experience.”

On May 29, Akron Beacon Journal reported “several hundred” people attended the unveiling to honor Truth. Mullins had spent years dreaming of this moment and, thankfully, the rain stopped in time to let her truly enjoy it.

Mullins says local activists have been hoping to honor Truth near the site of her historic speech for decades, although efforts were most recently renewed in 2018. “This has been long overdue,” she says. She credits the support of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and its African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund with expanding the footprint of the project. The Sojourner Truth Legacy Plaza is just one of more than 200 preservation projects the action fund has supported since launching in 2017. Nearly $100 million has been raised to ensure that sites honoring “activism, achievement and resilience” of African Americans are recognized throughout the country.

Originally intended to only include a statue of Truth, the 10,000 square-foot plaza now also includes a timeline of the activist’s life, 10-foot pillars representing the pillars of the Old Stone Church where she gave her speech, and a metal sculpture of a tree that displays Ghana’s national flower, the impala lily. (Mullins says Truth’s paternal family has roots in the African country.)

Dating at least back to the ’90s, Mullins’ predecessors at the Sojourner Truth Project-Akron had engaged Akron-born sculptor Woodrow Nash to create a statue in the image of the historic figure. The prototype was still in his workshop when Mullins’ group originally renewed plans to honor Truth. “It just sat on the shelf and collected dust until a few years ago when Towanda and them reorganized, and it really got traction and took off,” Nash says. The finished 6-foot statue depicts Truth holding a Bible.

Brent Leggs, executive director of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, says the National Trust worked with the Knight Foundation and local organizations including United Way of Summit and Medina and the Sojourner Truth Project-Akron to offer technical advice, project management, and financial resources for the plaza. “We help to affirm the local community's vision for their history. And we can validate the significance of a place and help harness the power of historic preservation to expand American history and to highlight these projects as placemaking and economic development,” he says.

Leggs says they worked with Akron-based landscape architect Dion Harris and Nash to design a space that infused international, national and local histories. This was done through the inclusion of the impala lilies, but also by etching the names of local Black women who have been impactful civic leaders into the plaza. Willia B. Player, the first Black woman in the country to serve as the president of a four-year college; Dr. Eleanor Smith Bozeman, the first Black woman to work as a physician in Akron; and Dorothy Jackson, the first Black woman to serve as the city’s deputy mayor, are among the local women honored alongside Truth within the plaza. 

Leggs says he hopes the space will invite both locals and visitors to honor a 173-year-old speech that has “reverberated throughout American history.”

“This memorial and plaza is both a repository of public memory and a beautiful expression of Black history and Akron,” the executive director and preservationist says. “It's really at the front door of Main Street in downtown Akron. Its placement in essence helps to welcome visitors and it signals for any newcomer or any visitor to the city, in downtown, the diversity of Akron’s civic identity.”