June 10, 2024

Faith, Activism, Power, and Identity: Sojourner Truth Legacy Plaza Opens in Ohio

On Wednesday May 29, the Sojourner Truth Legacy Plaza opened to the public in Akron, Ohio, marking the culmination of decades of advocacy on the part of local community members and the Sojourner Truth Project Akron, and a multi-year partnership with the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, the United Way of Summit and Medina, the Knight Foundation, artist Woodrow Nash, and landscape architect Dion Harris.

“As the first site honoring a Black woman in the state of Ohio, and as an innovative and culturally informed landscape project, we hope this site can be a place of empowerment, education, and reflection for Akron residents and visitors alike,” said Brent Leggs, executive director of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund.

Brent Leggs standing at a podium before the unveiling of the Sojourner Truth Legacy Plaza statue by Woodrow Nash.

photo by: Lawanna Holland-Moore

Action Fund Executive Director Brent Leggs, speaks at the ribbon cutting of the Sojourner Truth Legacy Plaza prior to the unveiling.

Hundreds of Akron residents and supporters attended the event, including Truth’s descendant Corey Mcleichey, Akron Mayor Shamas Malik, and Ohio State Representative Emilia Sykes.

The plaza sits on the site of the Universalist Old Stone Church where Truth gave what is commonly referred to as her “Ain’t I a Woman” speech at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in 1851. The church no longer stands, echoing the destruction of much of Akron’s historically African American neighborhoods during Urban Renewal in the 1950’s and 1960’s. In 2020, the area served as the parking lot and service vehicle entrance for the United Way of Summit & Medina’s office building.

Group photo of featuring Woodrow Nash the sculptor of the Sojourner Truth statue.

photo by: Brent Leggs

Attendees of the ribbon cutting of the Sojourner Truth Legacy Plaza (L-R): Wanda Nash, Dion Harris, Woodrow Nash, Brent Leggs and Towanda Mullins

A group of people gathered in front of the newly unveiled statue of Sojourner Truth in Akron, Ohio.

photo by: Brent Leggs

Celebrating the unveiling of the Sojourner Truth Legacy Plaza (L-R): Dion Harris, Pamela Hickson-Stevenson, Jackie Derrow, Towanda Mullins, Lawana Holland-Moore, Brent Leggs, Lisa King and Leianne Neff Heppner

The original plans for the site revolved around installing a statue of Truth on the property. However, the inclusion of the Action Fund and over $500,000 of philanthropic support from the Knight Foundation gave United Way and local community activists an opportunity to think bigger. Over the next three years, Lawana Holland-Moore, director of fellowships and interpretive strategies at the Action Fund, led community engagement efforts in partnership with Sojourner Truth Project Akron Chair Towanda Mullins, and convened a diverse network of thought leaders—from the landscape design and cultural heritage fields to city and state policymakers—to reimagine the project’s scope.

"The community was absolutely integral to this effort and told us that they wanted a place to gather, to reflect, to just be—and we heard them,” Holland-Moore said. “It is their story to tell and it is our hope that visitors will come away inspired by her life and legacy for generations to come."

Jim Mullen, CEO of United Way of Summit & Medina, signed off on the donation of the office’s 10,000 sq. ft. parking lot and $1 million for the plaza, where construction began in August 2022.

Internationally-renowned artist and sculptor Woodrow Nash, who had long-advocated with Mullins for an installation honoring Truth, was engaged to design her statue. Dion Harris, a landscape architect for Summit Metro Parks in Akron, developed the plans for what would become a new plaza with symbolic elements drawn from the site’s 1851 context and Truth’s own Ghanaian heritage.

Profile view of the Woodrow Nash statue of Sojourner Truth.

photo by: Brent Leggs

Profile view of the Woodrow Nash sculpted Sojourner Truth statue.

Surrounding Truth’s figure are four pillars which echo the structure of the former Universalist Church and are etched with the words faith, activism, power, and identity, and quotations from throughout her life. Fanning out from beneath her and the pillars, the plaza’s foundation is designed to resemble the Impala Lily, the Ghanaian national flower.

View of the Sojourner Truth Legacy Plaza featuring one of her quotations at dusk.

photo by: Brent Leggs

View of one of the quotations on the Sojourner Truth Legacy Plaza.

Now that the plaza is complete, Mullens noted that it is not “the finish line,” and that the plaza will be a “beacon of inspiration for our community and beyond.” While United Way will continue to own the land, the plaza is open to all, and multiple avenues for public education and community events are being explored in partnership with the City of Akron Public Schools, which will bring students to the site as part of its curriculum, and local arts, culture, and historical organizations.

“After decades of dedication and commitment from our community, we are proud to commemorate Sojourner Truth’s historic visit to Akron,” Mullins said. “Truth’s timeless message continues to resonate in 2024, inspiring and empowering women worldwide.”

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Morgan Forde is an editorial consultant for the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund. In her free time, she is earning a PhD in urban history and Black studies at Harvard University.

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