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Sojourner Truth becomes first black woman to be honored among statues at U.S. Capitol

April 28, 2009 | 11:57 am

Sojourner_truth_with_lincoln_a

She was an abolitionist who opposed slavery, a crusader for women's rights who took to preaching to forward her cause. Born into slavery in 1797 as Isabella Baumfree (after her father's owner), she took the name Sojourner Truth in 1843. After escaping to freedom, the woman who had never been taught to read became a preacher. Her most famous speech, "Ain't I a Woman?," given in 1851 at a women's rights convention in Ohio, was a reminder to suffragettes that they could not forward women's rights while ignoring the cruel plight of black women.

Today, at the new Capitol Visitors' Center, Sojourner Truth became the first African American woman to have a place of honor among the statues in the U.S. Capitol.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi opened the ceremony that unveiled the memorial statue in Emancipation Hall, so-named because slaves helped build the Capitol. Pelosi, the first woman speaker of the House of Representatives in U.S. history, said the former slave who met Abraham Lincoln had come home "to her rightful place."

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called the placement of Truth's statue "an achievement that did not come quickly or easily" and noted, "We're here because of barriers she tore down."

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, the Texas Democrat who with Hillary Clinton spearheaded the drive to honor Truth with a statue, spoke of how much the current generation owes to previous ones, saying "the truth will prevail." Actress Cicely Tyson recited Truth's speech to suffragettes.

Several other lawmakers also spoke -- House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.

But the headliner of today's event was First Lady Michelle Obama, who said that Sojourner Truth did not  allow the indignity of slavery o destroy her spirit, "who fought for her own freedom, and then used her powers, young people -- then she used her power to help others; who fought for the right to vote and for the rights of all women." In short, she said, "The power of this bust will not just be in the metal that delineates Sojourner Truth's face; it will also be in the message that defines her legacy."

Read Mrs. Obama's remarks below.

-- Johanna Neuman

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Photo: An image of President Lincoln showing Sojourner Truth the Bible presented in 1864. Credit: Library of Congress

THE WHITE HOUSE

Office of the First Lady
________________________________________________________________
For Immediate Release                           April 28, 2009

REMARKS BY THE FIRST LADY
AT THE SOJOURNER TRUTH BUST UNVEILING

U.S. Capitol
Washington, D.C.

12:13 P.M. EDT

     MRS. OBAMA:  Thank you.  Thank you so much.  I'm not going to talk long because everybody has said just about everything that can be said.  But let me tell you something, I am proud to be here.

     I want to congratulate everyone who was a part of making this day possible:  the NCBW, all of the elected official, C. DeLores Tucker, her family, the family of Sojourner Truth.  It is just a sheer delight to have you here witnessing this.

     But let's just think about this day and this gathering.  It is so good to see this hall filled with so many strong women -- a few brothers in here, a few people -- (applause) -- but such a diverse group of people crowding this hall.  And one can only imagine what Sojourner Truth, an outspoken, tell-it-like-it-is kind of woman -- and we all know a little something about that, right -- (applause) -- just to imagine what she would have to say about this incredible gathering, just looking down on this day, and thinking about the legacy she has left all of us -- because we are all here because, as my husband says time and time again, we stand on the shoulders of giants like Sojourner Truth.  (Applause.)

     And just as Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott would be pleased to know that we have a woman serving as the Speaker of the House of Representatives, I hope that Sojourner Truth would be proud to see me, a descendant of slaves, serving as the First Lady of the United States of America.  (Applause.)  So I am proud to be here.  I am proud to be able to stand here on this day with this dedication.

     And just as many young boys and girls have walked through this Capitol -- I see them now, and they see the bust of suffragists and hear the stories of the struggles of women, what they had to endure to gain the right to vote -- now many young boys and girls, like my own daughters, will come to Emancipation Hall and see the face of a woman who looks like them.  (Applause.)

     And all the visitors in the U.S. Capitol will hear the story of brave women who endured the greatest of humanities -- indignities.  They'll hear the story of Sojourner Truth who didn't allow those indignities to destroy her spirit, who fought for her own freedom, and then used her powers, young people -- then she used her power to help others; who fought for the right to vote and for the rights of all women.

     The power of this bust will not just be in the metal that delineates Sojourner Truth's face; it will also be in the message that defines her legacy.

     Forever more, in the halls of one of our country's greatest monuments of liberty and equality, justice and freedom, Sojourner's Truth story will be told again and again and again and again.  So now let's get on with unveiling this statue.  Thank you so much.  (Applause.)

                        END                               12:18 P.M. EDT
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