secret_history (2006-32)

The Immortal Fifty

An accidental encounter with the new suffrage exhibit

by Jack Neely

I don’t know why they use those things. I used to assume that some shy meteorologist in Morristown was embarrassed about his accent or lisp and found some voice-disguise system in an electronics catalogue to save himself from embarrassment.

I’ve since noticed it’s used in other parts of the country, too. But whenever it comes on, I can’t help thinking that our main problem isn’t the thunderstorm, but an obviously successful invasion by Uranians.

It went on to mention “Lou-Don Coun-Tee,” “Sweet-Water” and “Madison-Ville.”

“Remember, if you can hear Thun-Der, you’re close enough to be struck by Light-Ning.” I’ve always been skeptical that that’s one of those exaggerations robots are known for. I was raised on science-fiction movies, and if there was anything I learned, it was not to trust talking robots.

So, in the steamy heat, I ambled over to J’s for my mid-afternoon fix, a Coca-Cola and a Moon Pie, and when I left and shoved through the stubborn door outside, the sky was black. I was a block shy of the office when it started raining.

There’s something about a thunderstorm downtown that can make you think of Christmas. It’s dark in the afternoon, you notice the lights inside the businesses, and everyone is in a hurry and weirdly cheerful. People talk excitedly to strangers. All women are beautiful.

The rain was coming hard, and I ducked into the gallery in front of the History Center. Sometimes when a storm hits Gay Street just right, the tall buildings make the narrow street a wind tunnel, malfunctioning badly. The rain blew in white waves of mist down the street like a blizzard, as I stood and finished my Moon Pie, watching people run for their lives.

A loud popping overhead sounded like gunfire so loud I thought buildings were coming apart. I stuck my head out just long enough to see it was just a couple of flags, the U.S. flag and the Tennessee flag, on sidewalk poles. The wind was cracking them like whips. They were dancing in some nervous high-speed frenzy, and popping, wet fabric spanking itself hard. I gathered that I wouldn’t stay dry there. It’s a big sheltered area, but just the roof wasn’t enough. I was getting wet from three directions. More and more people fleeing down the street ducked into the history center, suddenly curious about their regional heritage.

I gave up on crossing the street and joined them. Inside, Cherel Henderson, the director of the East Tennessee Historical Society, looked pretty happy. “It’s good for admissions,” she said. There were several people in the gift shop, which you don’t always see at 3 on a Friday afternoon, and people looking at “Living On,” the exhibit of striking large photographs of Tennessee survivors of the Holocaust.

She also mentioned a new exhibit, which at the time wasn’t quite complete yet. “We’re almost finished with the Suffrage exhibit,” she said. “Would you like to see it?”

In the first room ETHS staffer Michele McDonald and Alan Alfrey, the museum’s new curator of exhibitions, showed me a very interesting exhibit about the Women’s Suffrage movement in America, and more particularly in Tennessee, which turned out to be the decisive battleground for what was once a controversial struggle. The exhibit is timed to coincide with the unveiling of a suffrage statue on Market Square, commemorating three influential Tennessee suffragists, including Knoxville’s Lizzie Crozier French. 

The exhibit, partly from the collection of Knoxville lawyer Wanda Sobieski, displays numerous artifacts from the Suffrage era, including books and documents signed by national feminist leaders Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and a pretty loony assortment of cartoon postcards, portraying contemporary attitudes toward suffragists and women in general. An audio component to the exhibit plays fight songs from the era, including one that sounds like a peppy vaudeville standard, with the refrain, “She’s good enough to be your baby’s mother / And she’s good enough to vote with you.”

Also in the exhibit are some plaster casts from sculptor Alan LeQuire’s impressive statue, as well as artifacts associated with the local struggle. 

The state and national drama of Women’s Suffrage reached a climax 86 years ago this month. The amendment that allowed women to vote had been least popular in the South. By August, 1920, Georgia, Virginia, Alabama, and five other states had rejected it. On Aug. 17, North Carolina rejected it. Only a few states remained undetermined. For the suffragists, hope was running out.

Suffrage had been popular in some urban centers, including Knoxville, for a few decades, with both Republicans and Democrats. Knoxville politicians had predicted equal suffrage since at least the 1890s. There was more resistance in some other parts of the state.

But that August, a young state representative from Niota, heeding the advice of his mother in a letter, added his vote to the Yes column on the issue of whether Tennessee would go along with the bold new idea of granting full citizenship to women. No legislative vote ever had a greater consequence than Harry T. Burn’s vote to let his mother vote. And his mother’s reasoning was as logical as the argument on which the nation was founded: no taxation without representation. He couldn’t argue much.

Burn’s was the deciding vote that made it a clear majority in the state House. And Tennessee was the deciding state that made “the perfect 36,” ratifying the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The nationwide impact of Burn’s decision is clear in a banner Boston Herald headline: SUFFRAGE WINS IN TENNESSEE.

Those who voted for suffrage received a small commemorative pocketknife congratulating them on being among the “IMMORTAL FIFTY.” One, presumably Burn’s own, is on display here. If it was bribery, I hope the statute of limitations has run its course by now.

That letter from his mother, Febb Ensminger Burn, is somewhere in the East Tennessee History Center, but you won’t see it in this exhibit. They keep it in deep storage, maybe like the Declaration of Independence. We have to content ourselves with photocopies.

The exhibit wasn’t officially open that day last week, but is now. Have a look, even if it’s not the only dry refuge on Gay Street.