Bust of Sojourner Truth Unveiled at U.S. Capitol

By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 29, 2009

She never learned to read or write, and the only known example of her signature seems to spell "Sonnog."

The only photographs are of her in old age, high cheekbones and strong features, her tight curls covered in a white bonnet. Isabella Baumfree -- she didn't call herself Sojourner Truth until she was 46 -- stood more than 6 feet tall. In pictures, she always seems to have a gaze that makes you want to stand up straighter.

Yesterday, 126 years after the fierce advocate who railed against slavery and for women's rights died in Battle Creek, Mich., she became the first African American woman to be memorialized with a bust in the U.S. Capitol. The ceremony to unveil the likeness was headed by a female secretary of state (Hillary Clinton), a female speaker of the House (Nancy Pelosi) and, needing no introduction, Michelle Obama.

"I hope that Sojourner Truth would be proud to see me, a descendant of slaves, serving as first lady of the United States," Obama told the crowd of more than 1,000 in Emancipation Hall at the Capitol Visitor Center. She added that she was glad that African American children touring the Capitol -- "boys and girls like my own daughters" -- could now "come to Emancipation Hall and see the face of a woman who looks like them."

The predominantly female crowd roared its approval to both lines.

The 60-minute ceremony, straddling the noon hour, was a feel-good celebration, capping a 10-year struggle to enshrine the 19th-century legend in the Capitol. There were gospel songs and tribute songs and hats worthy of Easter Sunday.

The idea began with the late C. DeLores Tucker, former chair of the National Congress of Black Women, a nonprofit advocacy organization devoted to advancing the causes of African American women. Tucker originally wanted to add Truth's likeness to the eight-ton "Portrait Monument" statues of the heroines of the suffrage movement: Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

That effort failed, but a revised plan for Truth to have a stand-alone bust was approved by Congress in 2006. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) and then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) were key sponsors. The bill was signed into law by President George W. Bush. The resulting bust -- featuring Truth with her trademark bonnet and a hint of a smile -- was created by California-based sculptor Artis Lane.

"Today is just like Christmas and Easter and every birthday you ever had -- and getting a pony for your birthday!" said Marty Langelan, past president of the National Woman's Party, an advocacy organization that at first worked for the right of women to vote (which came with the 19th Amendment in 1920) and was also a supporter of the Truth bust. "I remember C. DeLores Tucker coming to my house and asking me to write letters of support for this years ago. . . . It's just a deep joy."

Several rows up ahead in the crowd was Vicki L. Redmond, a NCBW member from Philadelphia. She helped collect $1 donations, 20 names to a page, to help pay for the bust.

Ultimately, said the NCBW's E. Faye Williams, $500,000 was raised for the bronze bust and for the pedestal and expenses, such as this celebration.

"We did it for at least eight years," Redmond said yesterday.

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