The United States officially enshrined the legacy of barrier-breaking lecturer and civil rights activist Sojourner Truth today, unveiling a memorial that will sit, like those of so many other famous men and women of American history, in Emancipation Hall of the US Capitol Visitors' Center. Truth was the first black person, male or female, to successfully bring suit in US court—for the return of her son. Truth gained notoriety as an early abolitionist and a forceful advocate for equality and women's rights. She embarked on speaking tours around the United States and over the years counted Ulysses S. Grant, William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass among her acquaintances. Throughout all of this pathbreaking testimony, Truth could not read and could not write.
Prominent African American businesswomen and activists, countless heads of womens groups, a dozen members of Congress, black, white, male and female—including the leadership of both houses of Congress—gathered at the Capitol to pay tribute to Truth's memory and glimpse the bust that will live in the Visitors' Center. I even spotted editor Tina Brown of THE DAILY BEAST with her head bowed in prayer.
After a moving benediction from Vashti McKenzie, bishop in the African Methoded United church, and member of President Obama's Faith Advisory Council, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a rousing paean to the legacy of Truth and other strong women in history. "It was a true grassroots effort," she said, referring to the almost decade-long struggle to place a memorial to an African American woman in the Capitol. Sojourner, the name with which Isabella Baumfree christened herself in 1843, was an appropriate choice, she added: "You're here because of the barriers she fought and challenged and tore down, the paths she helped forge and trod alone," she said.
Following a reading of Truth's famous "Ain't I a Woman?" speech by actress Cicely Tyson and a performance by the now-famous fifth and sixth graders at Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta, the first lady—wearing a black blouse and simple striped skirt—was also reverent as she spoke of the struggle that led to Truth's enshrining:
[O]ne 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—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.
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.
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.
Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.