Sojourner Truth descendants give 'great-grandpa' a marker in Battle Creek

Nick Buckley
Battle Creek Enquirer

Battle Creek – As O.D. Collins sang “His Eye is On the Sparrow,” generations of Sojourner Truth descendants gathered around the headstone of a man who died 122 years ago.

Though they had never met Thomas Schuyler, the family of Sojourner Truth in attendance owed their very existence to him, the Battle Creek Enquirer reports.

Barbara Allen, a sixth-generation Truth descendent and author of a children’s book about her “great-grandma,” organized a marker dedication recently for Thomas Schuyler at Harmonia Cemetery. Schuyler, who died in 1899, was the husband of Sophia, the infant with whom Truth escaped slavery in New York in 1826.

“It was important that he didn’t go unnoticed,” Allen said. “Just like if (Sojourner) didn’t take Sophia with her when she walked away from slavery, if Sophia wouldn’t have met Thomas, we wouldn’t be here.”

Descendants of Sojourner Truth, Shamon Pratt, Amanda Marshall, Jaeleona Scott, 4, Avianna Watson, 2, Ka'Leahya Scott, 8, and Alayah Watson, 3, Barbara Allen and Shannon Dyer pose for a photograph at Harmonia Cemetery Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in Battle Creek.

The eight descendants who attended the ceremony trace their linage to Truth through Sophia and Thomas Schuyler.

Truth, then Isabella Baumfree, took the infant Sophia with her when she walked 5 miles to her freedom, leaving a husband and three other children behind. They walked to the farm of Isaac and Maria Van Wagener, who did not believe in the institution of slavery, but still paid their former owner, John Dumont, $20 for Isabella’s services for a year and $5 for Sophia.

Little is known about the Schuylers. They ended up living in the Spiritualist village of Harmonia, where Truth settled for 10 years beginning in 1857.

Calhoun County land records show that lot 65 in the spiritualist village of Harmonia (now Fort Custer Industrial Park), was sold by Sophia and her sister Diana in 1896 for $115. A 1900 Detroit News editorial stated that Sophia Truth Schuyler was being sent to the Calhoun County poor house and called on the public to support her rescue. She died at the “county farm” in Marshall in 1901 at the age of 75.

Barbara Allen, a Battle Creek native and sixth-generation Truth descendant, poses for a photograph at Harmonia Cemetery Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in Battle Creek.

Sophia and Thomas had a daughter named Fannie, Sojourner’s only granddaughter. She would marry an Irishman named Frank Liechey in 1895. At some point the name changed to McLiechey.

Fannie and Frank produced Thomas McLiechey, and his daughter, Juanita, gave birth to Allen’s mother, Ann Irene Terrell.

Thomas McLiechey of Battle Creek, a fifth-generation Truth descendent, could not attend Thursday’s ceremony due to health issues. He had previously purchased the headstone for Sophia at the Harmonia Cemetery. The historic burial ground is managed by Bedford Township and accessible with permission.

“Every time I hear about Sojourner Truth, what I learned about her, when she left and walked away that morning, she left with her daughter,” McLiechey told the Enquirer in 2019. “There’s always been two people who walked away to freedom that day. I often wondered why they never mentioned her daughter.”

McLiechey and Allen had spent time at the ceremony, and his act of remembrance inspired Allen to do the same for their “great-grandpa.”

Allen said Thomas Schuyler’s marker cost $600 and the foundation was $350. She paid for roughly half of the marker, with the other half provided by friends through a GoFundMe campaign, while the Historical Society of Battle Creek, the Battle Creek Regional History Museum and the Sojourner Truth Center for Liberation and Justice covering the cost of the foundation.

During the ceremony, the Rev. William James Wyne of Second Missionary Baptist Church in Battle Creek said, “A marker of a grave is another moment of memory. Thomas Schuyler, who was married to Sophia, now has his own visible marker, that not only represents his death, but represents his life. May the ancestors continue to dig up old memories so people will know these people did not just die in Battle Creek, but they lived in a meaningful way.”

Amanda Marshall of Battle Creek, an eighth-generation Truth descendent, brought along her four daughters, Ka’Leahya Scott, 8, Jaeleona Scott, 4, Avianna Watson, 2, and Alayah Watson, 3.

“My aunt and my mom told me about (Sojourner) when I was like 10. I really didn’t know too much about it,” Marshall said. “Now I’m at the age where I want to learn and that’s why I brought them today. I want to show them their generations. (Ka’Leahya) was like, ‘Hold on, we talk about her in school.’ That’s your grandmother.”

Kimberly Holley, executive director of the Sojourner Truth Center for Liberation and Justice, said the gathering of descendants helps to make the iconic abolitionist and suffragist feel “more tangible.”

“At the Sojourner Truth Center, we absolutely want to amplify her legacy, but we also want people to see themselves in her,” Holley said. “She was a human just like the rest of us. She used her life experiences to impact the world in a way that she wanted, to make the changes she wanted to make. All of us can do that.”