First lady Michelle Obama on Tuesday reflected on her own family’s rise from slavery to the White House as she helped to unveil a statue of abolitionist Sojourner Truth — the first black woman to be so honored at the Capitol.
“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,” Mrs. Obama said to loud applause at a ceremony at the Capitol Visitor Center.
An early crusader for women’s right to vote and for an end to slavery, Truth met presidents Abraham Lincoln in 1864 and Ulysses S. Grant in 1870, and delivered her signature “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech at a women’s rights convention in Akron, Ohio, in 1851. Truth, a former slave, tried to vote on two occasions, but was turned away both times. She died in November 1883 at her home in Battle Creek, Mich.
Lawmakers, students and actress Cicely Tyson were among those who gathered at the visitor’s center to celebrate Truth’s legacy and watch Mrs. Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and others unveil the bronze bust of Truth.
“We’re here because of barriers she challenged and fought to tear down, and paths she helped to forge and trod alone,” Clinton said to an audience made up mostly of women.
Artist Artis Lane created the bust, which was paid for with private money.
Truth’s sculpture will remain on permanent display in the underground visitor center’s main space, called Emancipation Hall in part because slaves helped build the Capitol.
“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,” Mrs. Obama said.
Few minority women are enshrined in the Capitol. There are several statues of American Indian women, but no Asian or Hispanic women, according Donald Ritchie, a Senate historian.
Many of the statues in the Capitol’s collection were given by the states in the 19th century, Ritchie said. Most of the collection’s diversity has come in the last several decades.
Pelosi said Truth wouldn’t remain for long the only black woman honored with a statue in the Capitol because a statue of civil rights icon Rosa Parks will soon be placed there.
In 2006, President George W. Bush signed into law a requirement that a bust of Truth be placed in a “suitable, permanent location in the Capitol.” Clinton co-sponsored the measure when she served in the Senate.
The National Congress of Black Women, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the development of black women and their families, has pushed for Truth to be memorialized in the Capitol for almost 10 years.
Kim Fuller, a member of the organization from Philadelphia, said black women have not been represented at the Capitol for “far too long.”
“But now we are,” said Fuller, 49. “And who better to begin the representation — this is not the end of the representation … who better to begin than Sojourner Truth?”
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.