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A Suitable Memorial
by Martin L. Ashley

(Article first appeared in Heritage Battle Creek,
a Journal of Local History, Vol. 8  Fall, 1997)

 

17-Church-mini.jpg (4412 bytes)Sojourner Truth died in her College Street home on November 26, 1883.

Two days later, her funeral was held in the old Congregational Church, located on the south side of W. Michigan Avenue between Capital Avenue and McCamly Street. The Reverend Reed Stuart, pastor of the Congregational Church:

delivered an able discourse on the occasion and paid an eloquent tribute to the deceased. Giles Stebbins of Detroit, a prominent laborer in the cause of emancipation, also made an effective address, eulogizing the character of one whom he had long known and honored. A long procession of citizens followed the remains to Oak Hill Cemetery, where the burial rites were appropriately performed. 1

Oak Hill CemetaryAfter the burial, Truth's grave remained unmarked. Her longtime confidante and traveling companion, Frances Titus, remarked in 1885:

Sojourner is gone, but my work for her is not yet finished, as there must be a stone to mark her grave, for tis a grave which will be sought for in times to come more than now. 2

Her remark was prophetic, especially in 1997 as we celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of this extraordinary woman who worked so tirelessly for the freedom of her people and a variety of other reform causes.

Mrs. Titus proceeded to act on her desire for a "suitable memorial stone to be placed above the grave." In 1886 she announced that "a monument is in progress," and made an appeal for financial support to the citizens of Battle Creek:

This had already been too long delayed. More than three years are gone since the weary old pilgrim cast aside her staff and lay down to her long rest. The monumental marble has gleamed above the graves of Garrison, Phillips, Walker, Sumner and others of co-workers in the field of Reform, whilst Sojourner's grave has been left unmarked and in obscurity till now. 3

Her appeal was answered with contributions, large and small, coming in from around the country. Her fellow reformers, including Laura Haviland, sent money, as did many of Battle Creek's leading business and professional figures. 4

Tombstone from 1890By 1890, Titus had collected enough money to commission the local marble works, Shafer Brothers, to produce a headstone. The marker had "her name, age and time of death inscribed upon it, together with a sentiment that she once expressed to Fred Douglass ... 'Is God dead?' "  5

According to her tombstone, Sojourner was "aged about 105 years" when she died. Truth herself contributed to the confusion about her own age. She frequently claimed that she was over 100 years old and enjoyed the amazement this provoked in her audience. In 1881 a Battle Creek newspaper reported that she was 107 years old and quoted Truth as saying, "I have started in for another hundred years and want to live now more than ever. There is no better world than this." 6

Her biographer, Frances Titus, added to the mystique in her 1875 edition of the Narrative of Sojourner Truth:

Sojourner is often asked her age. She is as ignorant of its date as is the fossil found in the limestone rock, or the polished pebble upon the sea- shore, which has been scoured by the waves ever since the sea was born. ... Sojourner counts her years from the time she was emancipated -- says she began to live then. She thinks it is what we accomplish that makes life long or short, and says that some have been on earth scores of years, yet die in infancy. 7

In the next paragraph, Titus compounds the problem by citing an incorrect date for the emancipation of the slaves in New York, the very basis she used for determining Truth's age:

The act of 1817 in the State of New York emancipated all slaves of the age of forty years. From this time all became free as fast as they arrived at the age of 25 years, till 1827, when all were free. Sojourner became free in 1817.  8

Actually, Sojourner was legally emancipated in 1827. If Sojourner and Frances Titus were calculating her age from 1817, they were adding ten years to her actual age.

Even after the death of Frances Titus in 1894, local interest in Sojourner Truth continued to be strong, especially in the city's black community. In 1897 the "Afro-American Women of this city" formed a group "for the protection of our womanhood, our homes, our history as a part of the great American Nation and to best fit us to meet the demands of the race." 9   Drawing inspiration from the life of Battle Creek's most famous black citizen, they named the association the Sojourner Truth Club. The original vice-president, Mrs. J. J. Evans, remained active in supporting Sojourner Truth memorials over the next several decades.

In the years immediately preceding World War I, there were several attempts to create memorials to honor the achievements of Sojourner Truth. On a national level, a "Sojourner Truth Association of Michigan was formed in 1915 at the Africo-American Lincoln Jubilee held in Chicago, in commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of freedom; the Sojourner Truth clubs [were] organized in Montgomery and Birmingham, Ala." 10

Locally, interest in honoring Battle Creek's most famous citizen was also strong. In 1914, Mrs. Burritt Hamilton, the wife of one of the city's most prominent lawyers, approached the D. A. R. about placing a marker on Truth's home on College Street. As she traveled around the state as a member of the State Federation of Women's Clubs, Mrs. Hamilton was frequently questioned about the famous abolitionist and her life in Battle Creek. Responding to this evident interest in Sojourner, Mrs. Hamilton felt it was appropriate to do more to perpetuate her memory in her hometown.

At about the same time, the Sojourner Truth Memorial Association of Michigan announced a mission to "fund scholarships to the University of Michigan for the children of ex-slaves" and to "build a fitting monument over the grave of this noted woman at Battle Creek, where she was laid to rest at her death." 11   The local chapter of this association intended to sell postcards of Truth to raise money for these projects.

In October 1915, Mrs. Marie B. Ferry of Lansing, chairman of the Historical Committee of the Michigan State Federation of Women's Clubs, asked the Battle Creek Woman's League for support for a major project:

which has from time to time been spoken of by Negro residents of the city and state, should be carried out by them, but with the backing of the general public and the people of Battle Creek in particular. 12

Mrs. Ferry proposed placing a boulder with a plaque in Irving Park, "one of the prettiest spots future Battle Creek will possess." 13   Local historian and monument builder, J. H. Brown, had located a suitable boulder on the C.W. Austin farm in Springfield before the project was abandoned. 14

Work on all three of these memorials was discontinued during the war years and never came to fruition later because of the racial attitudes of the time. As the local newspaper reported in 1922,

The reason that no successful action has ever been taken to build a monument over her grave at Oak Hill Cemetery seems to be that the white people look upon the undertaking as one that should be carried by her own race, of whom she was so shining an example, while the colored churches by which such a movement would naturally be organized, find themselves already so heavily burdened in carrying out the world-wide program of service that they have undertaken. And so, every movement in this direction thus far, to apply one of her expressions to the case, have, 'just stopped growin' and stays as they is.'  15

Within the next few years, members of the black community did make a concerted effort to raise a "suitable" monument to Sojourner. They wanted to replace the original 1890 tombstone, which had "fallen into decay, " with the inscription "almost obliterated." 16 Formation of a Sojourner Truth Memorial Association began at the end of 1928, in recognition of the centennial of the emancipation of the slaves in New York state. By the anniversary of Lincoln's birth in 1929 the "completion of the organization was perfected." 17

21-Association-mini.jpg (9411 bytes)The club is composed of the colored women's clubs of the city, the Dardanella club, the Ladies' League, the Literary club, the Study Culture Club, the Idlewild club and the Uneeda Embroidery club. The husbands of the members are giving their cooperation. There are numerous committees active in securing funds to be used in erecting a suitable memorial. 18

The memorial association "decided to place a Michigan boulder with a bronze tablet, inlaid and topped with a life-sized bronze bust of Sojourner Truth at the head of the nearly-forgotten grave."  19

On June 2, 1929, a mass meeting was held at the Sanitarium Union Building to launch the fund raising efforts. 20  The event included remarks from mayor John W. Bailey and Minnie Merritt Fay, both of whom had known Sojourner Truth. The Men's Jubilee Chorus and several soloists provided music for the program, which ended with a mass sing-along of Swing Low Sweet Chariot.

At this meeting, pledges were solicited, to be paid into any one of several local banks. Apparently, judging from sketchy documentary evidence, approximately $700 was collected by the Association for the memorial project. During the Depression, this plan, like all the other previous memorial efforts, was put on hold due to lack of adequate funding. 21

Battle Creek Stone History TowerBut individuals kept the vision of a memorial alive. James H. Brown, who had located the boulder for the 1915 project, had a new idea. In 1935 he was building a stone history tower in Post Park, at the intersection of Main and Division streets with South Avenue. This tower contained historically-significant stones which he collected on his auto tours around the country. Stones commemorating local events and people were also featured in the tower. A Sojourner Truth stone was an important part of his plan.

The ceremony dedicating the Truth stone was held on November 10, 1935. As the newspaper reported:

preceding the gathering at Post Park, a brief religious service will be conducted at 2 p.m. at her grave in Oak Hill Cemetery. ... The colored Boy Scout troop of the city will officiate at a flag raising ceremony and an invocation will be given by the Rev. S. S. Harris, pastor of the A.M.E. Church. 22

The celebrants then proceeded downtown to dedicate the stone, located in the northwest corner of the tower, which was still under construction. After the brief ceremony:

the group adjourned to the First Baptist Church where the Rev. Patrick J. Maveety led the group in prayer. .. Payton Grayson, who came as a small boy to this city with his mother and Sojourner Truth, recounted ... some of his recollections of the famous colored woman. ... Mrs. J. G. Lewis traced the history of a fund which was started some years ago for the purpose of erecting a large monument to Sojourner Truth. At present the contributions to this fund total approximately $700, she said. A short address by the former superintendent of schools, W. G. Coburn, was followed by a talk by J. H. Brown on the life of Sojourner Truth. There was singing by the A. M. E. choir. 23

However, it took over fifty years to replace the original headstone in Oak Hill Cemetery, dedicated in the 1890s. The John W. Patterson Association was originally created in 1941 to organize a black community center. 24   By 1944 the group had secured the Hamblin Avenue U. S. O. building and changed its name to the Sojourner Truth Memorial Association. They began discussing the need to replace the "old time-worn monument at the grave" of the former slave. 25

In April 1945, John J. Evans, chairman of the Association's Monument Committee reported that the cost of a new marker would be $400.

After the members present discussed the pros and cons of the advisability of purchasing same; Mrs. Clyde Guy moved ... that Chairman be authorized to go ahead with the necessary arrangements. 26

The order was placed immediately with the Michigan Monument Company. However, due to wartime delays and material shortages, it was not until a year later that the new headstone actually arrived in Battle Creek.

A New Stone in 1946When the stone was installed in June 1946, the newspaper reported that:

The new monument replaces one which has stood for more than 60 years. It is of Georgia marble and is of the same stone that was used in the monument that was used on the grave of President Franklin D. Roosevelt at Hyde Park. The inscription gives her age as 'about 105,' but her actual age was not known. Also inscribed on the monument is a quotation from Stephen A. Douglas: 'Is God Dead?'  27

The newspaper also reported that there were preliminary plans for a "notable dedication and memorial program" to mark the installation of the new stone. "Guests will be invited from Chicago, Detroit and other larger cities. The list will include many persons who have long been familiar with the life and work of Sojourner Truth." 28

But plans were apparently changed and there was never a formal dedication of the new grave marker. However, in February 1947 an elaborate celebration was held at the Hamblin Community Center, during Negro History Week.

The story of her life was told briefly by Forest H. Sweet, who has made a detailed study of her career. Significance of her accomplishments were discussed by Miss Jessie Mae Carter, Detroit school teacher. ... Miss Cleo Haley, president of the Sojourner Truth Memorial association, which sponsored the program, introduced Miss Katherine Frances Moulton, a great granddaughter of Mrs. Frances W. Titus, who was a close friend of Sojourner Truth and her first biographer. ... Mrs. Mattie Willis paid a tribute to Sojourner Truth for her contribution in the field of music. Mrs. Willis sang two numbers, Deep River and Seeking for a CIty. 29

The next change in the gravesite did not take place until 1961. Berenice Lowe, a local historian who had done seminal research on Sojourner Truth, was concerned that there was no visible recognition of the family members who were also interred with Sojourner in lot 634 at Oak Hill Cemetery. 30

On April 29, 1961, she was invited to speak to the Memorial Association, giving:

a very excellent talk, delving into many highlights of Sojourner Truth's life. When Mrs. Lowe finished speaking, the members of the association discussed briefly the merits of a marker. It was moved by Dr. Evans and seconded by Frances Valentine that a marker, within a $150 price range, be purchased and erected to the memory of Sojourner Truth's family. 31

23-SojMemHghwy.jpg (6471 bytes)The free-standing historical marker, installed in June 1961, memorializes her daughters, Diana Corbin and Elizabeth Banks Boyd, and her grandsons, Samuel Banks and William F. Boyd.

In addition to the gravesite markers, a number of additional tributes have been paid to Sojourner Truth.

In 1976, as part of the nation's Bicentennial celebration, the Calhoun County portion of state highway M-66 was named "Sojourner Truth Memorial Highway." An editorial written at the time sums up the honor as "a most fitting tribute to a person who spent her life in travel, while preaching the equality of man." 32

In 1981 she was named to the National Women's Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York. Frances Valentine, former secretary of the Memorial Association, accepted the award on behalf of the citizens of Battle Creek and the nation.

Women's Hall Of Fame AwardSojourner Truth was among the group of twenty-eight women inducted into the Michigan Woman's Hall of Fame when it opened in Lansing in 1983.

The State Bar of Michigan and Calhoun County Bar Association honored Sojourner in 1987 as the sixth recipient of the Michigan Milestone Marker. The marker was unveiled at a dedication service held at the former Hall of Justice building.

Truth was selected for the honor because she used the legal system throughout her life, from a court battle to free her small son, who was illegally sold into slavery, to helping free blacks swear out warrants for the return of their kidnapped kin, to lobbying legislators for laws granting parcels of land to freed slaves. 33

In the same year, the Battle Creek Club of the National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women's Clubs sponsored a marker dedicated to Truth. This recognition was part of a state-wide theme trail developed by the Michigan Women's Studies Association, focusing on twenty-one Michigan women and their contributions to society. This marker was originally located on the downtown Michigan Mall, between Robinson's and the Mini Mall. It has since been relocated to the grounds of the Kimball House Museum.

The Battle Creek Club also sponsors an annual Sojourner Truth luncheon to recognize dedicated students and civic leaders. Their Sojourner Truth Award is given annually "to women whose lives most closely exemplify the ideas of abolitionist, civil rights and feminist leader, Sojourner Truth." 34   Following the luncheon, the group gathers at her grave for a memorial service.

The 1997 200th anniversary celebration of her birth is part of a proud tradition of honoring Sojourner Truth and the continued relevance of her ideas which will continue to shape the future.

 

Endnotes

HeritageCover.gif (11826 bytes)1.  Battle Creek Journal, November 28, 1883.

2. (Battle Creek) Sunday Morning Call, "Sojourner Truth -- Some New Facts about this Remarkable Woman," January 11, 1885.

3. Undated clipping from unidentified Battle Creek newspaper, c. 1886-87, from the Martich Black History Collection, Willard Public Library, Battle Creek, MI.

4. "Donation List for a Memorial Stone for the Grave of the late Sojourner Truth," c. 1887, from the archives of the Historical Society of Battle Creek, Battle Creek, MI.

5. Coldwater Republican, March 4, 1892.

The phrase, "Is God dead?" inscribed on Sojourner's tombstone can be traced back to an encounter between Frederick Douglass and Truth at a meeting held in Akron, Ohio, in August 1852. Douglass was delivering an eloquent, if despairing, speech and had brought his audience to a "high pitch of excitement," when Truth interrupted and asked, "Is God gone?" Her remark was later incorrectly reported as "Frederick, Is God dead?" in an article Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote for the New York Independent in 1860 and repeated in her influential article for the Atlantic Monthly three years later. There is a full discussion of this incident in Carleton Mabee's book, Sojourner Truth, Slave, Prophet, Legend, (New York, N. Y. University Press, New York, 1993), pp.83-92.

6. Battle Creek Daily Moon, "Sojourner Truth," May 7, 1881.

7. Titus, Frances, Narrative of Sojourner Truth (Boston, published for the author, 1875), pp. 309-10.

8. ibid.

9. Battle Creek Daily Journal, July 13, 1897.

10. Unidentified Battle Creek newspaper, "Sojourner Truth Memorial Plans To Be Worked Out Monday Evening, c. 1929, from the Martich Black History Collection.

11. Pamphlet produced by the Sojourner Truth Memorial Association of Michigan, 1915, archives of the Historical Society of Battle Creek.

12. Battle Creek Moon Journal, "Monument for Friend of Abe," October 25, 1915.

13. ibid. Irving Park was developed from a section of swampy land by landscape architect T. Clifton Shepard between 1917 and 1924. A new lagoon, trees, shrubbery and flowering plants dramatically placed, along with a colorful rock garden, added to the beauty of this showplace of Battle Creek. The park was named for Irving L. Stone, president of the Duplex Printing Press Company and donor of most of the land used for the park.

14. For more information on James H. Brown, see volume 1 of Heritage Battle Creek (fall 1991), Frances Thornton, "Rocks of Ages -- The Towering Dream of James H. Brown," pp. 6-15.

15. Battle Creek Enquirer & Evening News, "Moves for Monument for Sojourner Truth 'Just Stop Growin' and Stay as They Is'," June 8, 1922.

16. op. cit., "Memorial Plans to be Discussed," June 16, 1929.

17. see note 10.

18. ibid.

19. unidentified Battle Creek newspaper, "Decision is Reached on Type of Memorial," c. 1929. Martich Black History Collection.

20. The Sanitarium Union Building was constructed between 1926 and 1928 as a recreational facility for Sanitarium employees. Later it was purchased by the federal government and, during World War II, was used as a physical therapy unit for Percy Jones Army Hospital. In 1958, the site was declared surplus property by the government and was donated to the Battle Creek public school system. It is currently used as the athletic fieldhouse for Battle Creek Central High School.

21. According to a 1935 newspaper article (see note 23), a fund was started a few years earlier, which totaled approximately $700. Probably this money was raised in the 1929 fund drive for a memorial to Truth.

22. Battle Creek Moon Journal, "Sojourner Truth Memorial Stone To Be Dedicated," November 10, 1935. See note 14.

23. Battle Creek Enquirer & Evening News, "Stone Is Dedicated to Sojourner Truth," November 11, 1935.

24. The John W. Patterson Association was organized in 1941 to take the lead in organizing a community center for the black community. After they received assurance from the city that the Hamblin Avenue U.S.O. building could be converted into a community center, the Association changed its focus and bought a vacant lot next to the proposed center. The purchase was made to provide space for outdoor recreation and to be certain that no one else could erect a building immediately adjoining the center. The Association was originally named for John W. "Pat" Patterson, the city's first black policeman, serving from 1909 until his death in 1940.

The first president of the Memorial Association was Cleo Haley, who was also influential in founding the Dardanella Art Club. To raise funds for their projects, the Memorial Association charged annual dues of $1.00 and held a variety of parties, raffles and banquets.

25. Ross Coller, unpublished manuscript, "Sojourner Truth Memorial Association," 1946, archives of the Historical Society of Battle Creek.

26. Minutes, Sojourner Truth Memorial Association, April 6, 1945, p. 100, archives of the Historical Society of Battle Creek.

27. Battle Creek Enquirer & News, "New Monument to be Unveiled on Grave of Sojourner Truth," June 2, 1946. For a discussion of the correct origin of the "Is God dead?" quotation, see note 5.

28. ibid.

29. Battle Creek Enquirer & News, "Meeting Dedicated to Sojourner Truth," February 10, 1947.

30. Berenice Lowe was a noted authority on Sojourner Truth, spending many years of research exploring her life and work.

Historical MarkerIn 1973, Lowe prepared the following information for the Afro-American Bicentennial Corporation, about the number of markers which had been placed on Sojourner Truth's grave:

Three years after Sojourner's death her friend, manager, biographer and benefactor, Mrs. Frances Titus, raised at least $44 for a stone marker. It is unknown if one was placed then. An undated newspaper clipping states that the D.A.R. was agitating for a monument in 1904. Nothing seems to have resulted from this campaign. In 1915 Mrs. Marie Ferry of the Michigan Historical Commission spoke in Battle Creek, urging a monument to Sojourner's memory. The late A. L. Miller, editor of the Enquirer & News, stated that he was on the committee that erected a marble shaft about four feet high above Sojourner's grave in 1916. The marble was worn away in the weather and was replaced in 1946 by the Sojourner Truth Memorial Association with the same text cut into a higher granite shaft. In 1961 the same group erected a historical marker honoring Sojourner and her loved ones who lay beside her. (archives of the Historical Society of Battle Creek).

Contrary to Lowe's research, I have found several references indicating that a marker was placed on Sojourner's grave around 1890. In 1929, during the fund drive for a monument to Sojourner, her tombstone was described as having fallen into decay, with the inscription almost obliterated. (see note 15). Another article from 1946 states that the new monument replaces one which had stood for more than sixty years. (see note 26). I believe that these two references indicate that there was no tombstone erected in 1916 and that the present stone is only the second one which has stood over Truth's grave.

31. Minutes, Sojourner Truth Memorial Association, April 29, 1961, p. 203, archives of the Historical Society of Battle Creek.

32. Battle Creek Enquirer & News, "Sojourner's Pride," April 11, 1976.

33. Battle Creek Enquirer & News, "Plaque, Ceremony Recognize Truth as 'Crusader for Justice'," September 11, 1987,

34. Battle Creek Shopper News, "Community Citizens and Businesses Honored at Sojourner Truth Luncheon," May 26, 1983.

Past winners of the annual Sojourner Truth Award from 1972 through 1997 include Major Helen Hollins, Julia Milner, Revene Slater, Ella E. Roye, Victoria Dozier, Theresa McFall, Rosa Lee Austin, Aretha E. Smith, Dorothy M. Young, Patricia Perry, Katherine Woods, Amy Evelyn Parks, Patricia Lewis, Martha A, Speights, Voncile B. Bullock, Marian Burch, Maude Bristol-Perry, Ruth Burton, Bertha Cheatham, Velma Clay and Joyce Brown. (program book of the 26th Annual Sojourner Truth Awards and Founder's Day Luncheon, April 26, 1997, Martich Black History Collection).

 

 

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