Today, First Lady Michelle Obama will help unveil a bronze bust of Sojourner Truth, a former slave and women’s rights activist. This will be the first sculpture of a black woman in the U.S. Capitol. The ceremony will take place in Emancipation Hall at the newly opened Capitol Visitor Center at 11am EST.
Makayla Gray McLiechey, a 10-year-old from Grand Rapids, Michigan is a descendant of Sojourner Truth. When interviewed she said, “When anyone comes to me and says, ‘Aren’t you Sojourner Truth’s eighth-generation grandchild?’ That just tickles me,” McLiechey said. “… I feel so happy inside that I am a part of history and the making of Sojourner Truth history.”
McLiechey is one of eight Truth descendants from Battle Creek and Grand Rapids who left for Washington D.C. on Saturday night where they will take part in an unveiling ceremony of a bust of Truth at Emancipation Hall in the U.S. Capitol building today.
“This is something we probably never dreamed would happen. We couldn’t be any prouder,” said Burl McLiechey, a sixth-generation Truth descendant.
The $3.2 million bust will make history as the first memorial bust of a black woman to be placed in the Capitol. The project was spearheaded by the National Congress of Black Women, Inc. and took nearly 10 years to complete.
Dorothy Height helped raise $4,000 to contribute to the bust through the Dollars for Truth Campaign, which began two years ago.
Height also arranged for the local descendants of Truth to attend the ceremony. In a tribute to history, they are bringing a Bible signed by themselves and more than 300 Battle Creek residents to present to President Barack Obama. Thomas McLiechey said the gesture is reminiscent of when Truth presented Abraham Lincoln with a bible during his Presidency.
The campaign to memorialize Truth in the nation’s Capitol began more than a decade ago. A self-educated abolitionist who changed her name from Isabella Baumfree, Truth played a large role in the women’s suffrage movement and in 1851 delivered the famous “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech at a women’s rights convention in Ohio.
Truth, who died in 1883, encompassed all aspects of a truly free woman. She personified women’s rights, equal rights, struggling and understanding.
E. Faye Williams, chairwoman of the nonprofit National Congress of Black Women, which commissioned the work, said many believed that Truth should stand alongside women’s rights figures Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott in a portrait monument that was placed in the Capitol Rotunda in 1997.
However Congressional legislation to include Truth in that group failed but Congress approved a bill in 2006 to memorialize the black suffragist in a stand-alone sculpture.
E. Faye Williams said that Artis Lane was the first choice to produce the work.
Frank Sinatra’s family purchased her portrait of President Kennedy, Rosa Parks asked her to design her congressional Gold Medal, President Clinton bought her painting of Hillary and Artis Lane’s sculptures and paintings are in the private collections of Oprah Winfrey, Maya Angelou and Nelson Mandela. She has also created works for Michael Jordan, Quincy Jones and Armand Hammer.
Today, at 81, Lane is celebrating what may be her greatest commission. “The world’s coming around to seeing black as beautiful,” Lane said in an interview at her home in Los Angeles’ Fairfax district. “When I came up, they were laughing at darker people.”
To help her prepare, Lane collected dozens of photographs and writings from Truth’s life. She read one of her favorite quotations aloud last week while she got ready for her trip to DC, “If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back and get it right side up again. And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.”
In those days, as a woman over 6 feet tall and working in the fields, they accused her of being manly, Lane said. “She bared her chest and said ain’t I a woman? I’ve worked harder than some men in the fields, bleeding and have taken more whippings and all that.” She’s someone I deeply admire,” Lane said as she smiled.
Lane traces her earliest memory of sculpting to about age 4, when she took one of her grandmother’s dolls to a stream and tried to re-create the porcelain figure out of mud.
The granddaughter of abolitionist educators, Lane was born Artis Shreve in 1927 in North Buxton, an all-black town near Chatham in Ontario, Canada. She later moved about 100 miles west to Ann Arbor, Mich., where her father worked as a mechanic.
Lane said her ancestry is African and German and included among forebears is Mary Ann Shadd Cary, who launched the Provincial Freeman, an abolitionist newspaper. As a child, Lane quickly took to drawing. Her teachers often tried to force her to use her right hand, instead of her left. She went to college to study art in Toronto before switching to Cranbrook Academy of Art and then to UCLA. She became known early on for her portraits but has also gained fame in sculpting and other kinds of painting.
Last year, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa presented Lane with the Dream of Los Angeles award. The California African American Museum honored her with a lifetime achievement award in 2007 and staged a retrospective of more than 60 years of her work.
Among the pieces included in the exhibition titled “A Woman’s Journey: The Life and Work of Artis Lane” were sculptures “Emerging Woman” and “Emerging First Man.” The emergence of the bronze figures from their ceramic molds symbolizes man’s emergence from material thinking into spiritual consciousness.
Even though much of her work is groundbreaking, she doesn’t consider herself a protest artist and said that instead she’s “making a statement of how the mortal man has disrupted the harmony of our lives.”
Below is from Sojourner Truth’s (1797-1883) most famous speech “Ain’t I A Woman”, adapted into poetic form by Erlene Stetson. Enjoy!
That man over there say
a woman needs to be helped into carriages
and lifted over ditches
and to have the best place everywhere.
Nobody ever helped me into carriages
or over mud puddles
or gives me a best place…Ain’t I a woman?
Look at me
Look at my arm!
I have plowed and planted
and gathered into barns
and no man could head me…Ain’t I a woman?
I could work as much
and eat as much as a man
…when I could get to it…
and bear the lash as well…Ain’t I a woman?
I have born 13 children
and seen most all sold into slavery
and when I cried out a mother’s grief
none but Jesus heard me…Ain’t I a woman?
That little man in black there say
a woman can’t have as much rights as a man
cause Christ wasn’t a woman.
Where did your Christ come from?
From God and a woman!
Man had nothing to do with Him!
If the first woman God ever made
was strong enough to turn the world
upside down all alone,
together women ought to be able to turn it
rightside up again!