Encinitas sculptor creates tribute to Sojourner Truth

Isabella (Bell) Baumfree (1797-1883), who took the name Sojourner Truth when she became a leader in the anti-slavery and women’s suffrage movements of the early 19th century, has been immortalized in bronze with a statue in her honor at Thurgood Marshall College on the UCSD campus.

African-American artist and educator Manuelita Brown of Encinitas, a long-time admirer of Truth, created the work.

Truth was born into slavery on a Dutch farm in Swartekill, New York, in 1797, where she spoke only Dutch until she was 6 years old. She grew into a muscular, 6-foot-tall woman on the farm. Her physical strength, which rivaled that of men, was honed by performing hard work, such as plowing and hoeing fields. At some point in time, she lost her right index finger in a farming accident.

In 1826, at age 29, Truth escaped from slavery with an infant daughter, who was one of five children she bore. Another one of her daughters had already been taken from her and sold into slavery. After her escape, Truth was able to retrieve a son from the farm through a court case, making her the first black woman to accomplish this.

Truth soon joined the company of abolitionists and woman’s rights advocates and became a speaker on tour for these causes. One of her most famous speeches, titled “Ain’t I A Woman,” was given in May 29, 1851 at the Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio. In this speech, she lobbied for equal pay for equal work for women.

In another famous speech, Truth called for the vote for women, noting that as a woman she could own land and pay taxes, but could not vote. At another speaking engagement, she bared her breasts to the audience when a heckler accused her of being a man in disguise.

During the Civil War, Truth recruited black soldiers for the Union Army. After the war ended, she lobbied for land grants for freed slaves. Her activities were so important that Abraham Lincoln invited her to visit him at the White House.

The commission for the Truth installation came about by happenstance. Manuelita Brown’s husband, Willie C. Brown, a UCSD professor emeritus in the biology department, was meeting with UCSD literature professor Jorge Mariscal.

Mariscal mentioned that his students in the “Dimensions of Culture” series were lobbying for a sculpture of Sojourner Truth on campus. Brown said his wife was working on just such a sculpture in her Encinitas studio, and a deal was struck to bring it to campus.

Manuelita Brown has other sculptures on campus. She did the Triton Fountain in front of the Price Center in 2008, and before that, a small bust of Chief Justice Marshall that stands in front of the Marshall College Administration Building.

Brown also created the eight dolphins in the fountains at the UTC Westfield Mall in 1999, and more recently, a sculpture of a young girl, which is located in Encinitas.

About the artist

Brown grew up in Vienna, Va., on the outskirts of Washington, D.C. Her father, a cab driver, died when she was 16, leaving her mother, a civil service worker, to support her and her two sisters.

She said her first encounter with prejudice came when her Girl Scout troop was denied permission to march and carry the American flag in a parade at the Capital because the troop contained black members.

Brown sold her first work of art, a bottle she painted, for 50 cents when she was 8 years old. Recently, the owner of the bottle returned it to her as a keepsake. But even though she had artistic sensibilities, Brown said she dreamed of becoming an engineer to build bridges and roads.

After high school, she was given a scholarship to Virginia State, but since it did not have an engineering major, she elected to study math. At college, she met and married Willy Brown, her husband of 54 years. After his graduation, they moved to Oregon so he could pursue a master’s degree at Oregon State, which is where Brown finished her B.A. in math.

After a stint in the military, the Browns returned to Oregon State where Willy completed a Ph.D. in microbiology. After a post doc at Scripps Institute of Oceanography, he was hired to teach at UCSD.

While her husband taught at UCSD, Brown taught high school math at Torrey Pines and San Dieguito high schools and completed a master’s degree in psychology at UCSD.

Although Brown stills dreams of building road and bridges, she’s chosen sculpture as an avocation because “it lasts!” Her inspirations are artists Rodin and Malliol.

Brown first creates her sculptures out of clay or wax. The figures are then sent to the foundry where molds are made and molten bronze poured into them. Usually a sculpture is made in parts, then welded together and painted with special chemicals to bring out different colors.

Besides pursuing her artwork, Brown is very keen on the importance of education. “I believe in public education,” she said. “That’s the only way to have a good society. You can not have a good society if you reserve education only for the well-to-do.”

UCSD Chancellor Pradeep Khosla said Brown’s “Sojourner Truth” statue is an important addition to the campus because it will “serve to stimulate conversation about who she was and what she stood for and the need to continually address racial and gender equality.”

Brown thinks her sculpture will “remind people of what they can accomplish with a superior education.”

For more information about Manuelita Brown’s work, visit manuelitabrown.com.

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