Sojourner Truth was one of the country’s foremost civil rights speakers during the Civil War era. You may not know she also once called Southwest Michigan home.
MICHIGAN—She was an abolitionist. An evangelist. A civil rights activist. And a proud Michigander.
Before Battle Creek became widely known as “Cereal City” because of Kellogg’s Company, it was a beloved town where Sojourner Truth both lived and died. Truth moved to the nearby Spiritualist and Quaker community of Harmonia in 1857, 16 years after Battle Creek’s founding date. Ten years later, she moved to College Street in Battle Creek. Though she was the ripe age of 60 when she moved to Michigan, she lived in the area until her death in 1883.
Truth moved to the area to join her daughter Elizabeth, but it was because of her youngest daughter, Sophia, that Truth has descendants today. When Truth escaped from slavery in New York, she courageously turned back for her infant daughter, Sophia, the only child among her four that she was able to take with her. Years later, Sophia gave birth to Truth’s only granddaughter, Fannie McLiechey, and thus the Truth legacy lives on. Among her living descendants is Barbara M. Allen, a Battle Creek native who has written multiple children’s books about her inspirational ancestor.
Truth escaped slavery to become one of the nation’s first intersectional civil rights icons, representing Black Americans, women, and most importantly, Black women. Despite being illiterate, Truth was remarkably intelligent and a gifted orator. She traveled the country as a wandering preacher, guided by a greater purpose she was certain came from God. Her most famous speech, “Ain’t I a Woman,” was given in Akron, Ohio, for the 1851 Women’s Rights Convention. She advocated for abolitionism and feminism throughout the Civil War era and beyond, and helped former enslaved Black Americans find jobs. She made history as the first Black woman to successfully sue a white man to regain custody of her son.
In the process of becoming one of the country’s most gifted public speakers and activists, Truth endured many hardships. Before the state of New York passed a law freeing enslaved people, Truth, born Isabella Bomfree, had been bought and sold four times over three decades. She was also separated from the people she loved, including her family and children, on several occasions.
Though Truth had traveled the country, she found she loved Battle Creek the most. Here’s a list of must-see locations that honor the renown civil rights figure’s time in Michigan.
Sojourner Truth’s Footsteps (Quaker Park)
63 Groveland St., Battle Creek
Though Quaker Park may be an unassuming suburban park now, in Truth’s time, it was a meeting house for the Society of Friends, also known as the Quakers. The Quakers believed the concept of God was accessible to everyone. This aligned with Truth’s beliefs, as she often held solitary conversations with God while she was still enslaved. Truth spoke to the Quakers in 1856, and even sang at the building’s opening. Something about the meeting, the area, or perhaps even the Quakers themselves convinced her to move to the Battle Creek area the following year.
Though the meeting house is no longer standing, Truth’s footsteps were preserved in metal and interred into the concrete. Visitors can literally retrace Truth’s footsteps, as the artifact beckons them to “Stand in my footprints. Follow my vision.”
Visit the Battle Creek Recreation Department website for more information.
Sojourner Truth Monument (Monument Park)
2-14 E Michigan Ave., Battle Creek
Dedicated in 1999, this 12-foot-tall bronze sculpture in Truth’s likeness stands proudly in downtown Battle Creek. The sculpture was designed by internationally renowned sculptor and painter Tina Allen, who in her lifetime had depicted other prominent African Americans such as Frederick Douglass, Nelson Mandela, and Malcolm X. The depiction shows Truth standing at a lectern, creating an inspiring vision of the experienced public speaker she was in her time.
The statue is interred in an amphitheater, with the surrounding wall depicting quotes from Truth as well as a recreation of her signature. Perhaps drawing inspiration from Truth, organizers of political demonstrations have often used the monument as a gathering place.
Visit the Calhoun County Visitors Bureau website for more information.
Sintex Sojourner Truth Mural
17 W. Michigan Ave., Battle Creek
Across from Mill Race Park and facing Capital Avenue is a hidden gem of public art. In the inaugural year of Battle Creek’s street art festival, Color the Creek, Detroit artist Sintex painted a colorful mural in the likeness of Truth. Sintex has created street art across Michigan and the country, often featuring African American public figures and Indigenous people. Since then, the Truth mural has inspired other street artists in Color the Creek, many of whom use street art to tackle racial injustice.
Battle Creek Regional History Museum
307 Jackson St. W, Battle Creek
The Battle Creek Regional History Museum (BCRHM) has only been open to the public for a few years, but has a lot of room to grow. Though the fledgling history museum has struggled for momentum, especially during the coronavirus pandemic, growth has been steady. Truth, though, was always an integral part of the “story” of the Battle Creek area the history museum wanted to tell.
The Sojourner Truth conference room currently has many artifacts donated by Thomas McLiechey, one of the activist’s descendents. The collection includes an illustrated narrative of her life, as well as photographs and other memorabilia. There are also artistic items made by Thomas McLiechey available for purchase.
The Battle Creek Regional History Museum is open on weekends only, Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. Admission is free, but donations are suggested. Visit their website for more information.
Sojourner Truth Gravesite (Oak Hill Cemetery)
255 South Ave., Battle Creek
Battle Creek’s Oak Hill Cemetery has been serving as the final resting place for the city’s residents since 1844, and Truth is among them. Located in lot 634, the civil rights icon lies beside two of her daughters, Elizabeth and Diana.
Though Truth’s gravesite is not among the most popular destinations for travel, her memorial stone became of interest in the 2016 presidential election. In honor of Truth’s legacy of attempting to vote in the 1872 presidential election, Battle Creek locals left their “I Voted” stickers at her gravesite.
Truth’s daughter Sophia and son-in-law Thomas are buried at the nearby Harmonia Cemetery.
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