“Ain’t I a Woman?” Sojourner Truth asked the 1851 Women’s Convention in Akron — and, by extension, the nation.

The civil rights leader and mother sought equal status as a woman, not the lesser station of a freed black slave 167 years ago. It was a question of race and gender, not one or the other. And it’s been asked ever since.

So when Akron’s black female leaders logged onto Facebook Monday, they were shocked to see photos of 50 white women unveiling a mural of Sojourner Truth in Lock 3 at a ceremony attended by Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan and Summit County Executive Ilene Shapiro.

“To actually see photos on Monday after the event happened, it was shocking and disturbing, to say the least,” said Margo Sommerville, president of Akron City Council.

Sommerville was the only black female on council asked to attend Monday. But she missed the email invitation sent late Friday from Adele Roth, who volunteered for the project and works in Mayor Horrigan’s economic development office.

“Of course, as the first African-American female to lead City Council, I would have definitely wanted to attend such an event, such an unveiling of a woman like Sojourner Truth, who was a champion of civil rights, who paved the way for me to be where I’m at now,” Sommerville said.

The mural, designed by artist OLEK and funded by a Knight Arts Challenge, hangs from the side of the Akron Civic Theatre. It was meant to bring women together as part of Love Across the USA, a movement that includes 50 art pieces honoring women from coast to coast.

Tara Samples, one of four minority females on Akron City Council, is asking a more diverse crowd of women to join her at 5:15 p.m. Wednesday in front of the mural. Participants will pose for what she hopes will be a more diverse photo than the one posted online under the mayor’s Facebook account.

“It’s hurtful that we can continue to call ourselves a welcoming community as a city or county — and have an unveiling of such a powerful black woman who we look up to — and not be able to celebrate all that she has done for woman’s rights and civil rights. It’s just disheartening. It just shows how much further we have to go in our country in terms of racial relations,” Samples said.

Councilwomen Linda Omobien and Veronica Sims called the whole experience “very unfortunate.”

The installation was coordinated by Cindy Michael, a white woman who raised $16,000 to win a Knight grant while running her local business, Harps & Thistles Yarn Emporium. Michael said she reached out without any luck to the black sororities at the University of Akron for help recruiting black volunteers. None of the 115 female and one male participants was black, she said.

Each volunteer crocheted an individual square. They were seamed together over the weekend and the mural went up Saturday.

No invitations

The dedication Monday “was a celebration to thank the people who were involved in its creation,” said Michael. “There were no invitations. It was put out on social media. We did not exclude or include anyone in particular.”

Michael was directed by OLEK, the artist, not to disclose the subject of the project as volunteers agreed to produce the puzzle pieces. Only when it came together would they see Sojourner Truth, a detail Michael said would have been helpful in getting black volunteers to participate.

“I feel bad. I really feel bad that it has come to this and they have taken offense,” Michael said of the backlash. “My intent was to celebrate Sojourner Truth and all she has done for women.

“I’m not a black woman and I don’t know what she meant to black women. And that’s a conversation I would love to have.”

Michael said Sommerville’s father, Marco, knew of the project. She said she asked him to help recruit blacks, but he did not respond.

Marco Sommerville, who is in Horrigan’s cabinet, could not be reached for comment Tuesday. And the mayor’s office said it played no part in the project, which Michael said the mayor “helped get installed.”

Not sponsored by city

“This was not a city-sponsored event,” said the mayor’s spokesperson, Ellen Lander Nischt. “… The city did not organize or manage the unveiling event, nor did we coordinate who was invited or how yesterday’s event was communicated to the public.”

Kyle Kutuchief, Akron director of the Knight Foundation, said one of the goals of the art installation “is to unite individuals from different cultures and neighborhoods for a common goal.”

The foundation “believes in equitable, inclusive and participatory communities,” Kutuchief said. “We look forward to seeing this project achieve its stated goals, with leadership and engagement from across Akron.”

OLEK has featured Harriet Tubman, Nina Simone and Susan B. Anthony in other installations. But her Akron piece raises concerns among some by replacing the question mark at the end of Truth’s address with an exclamation point.

“That was not a statement she was making,” said Emilia Sykes, one of two black females who represent Akron in the Ohio House. “It was a question she was asking to the audience” back in 1851.

“That stood out to me,” Sykes said. “It wasn’t a statement. It was a question. Even to this day, I would like people to ask the question: Am I not a woman? Do I not get all the rights and courtesies because I’m black?”

Reach Doug Livingston at 330-996-3792 or dlivingston@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow him @ABJDoug on Twitter or www.facebook.com/doug.livingston.92 on Facebook.