The Final Stretch of the March – 1919-1920

Pressured by the suffragists and concerned about foreign propaganda, President Wilson finally endorsed woman suffrage publicly in September 1918. “African American women’s clubs worked with white suffrage organizations to get out the vote in municipal elections that passed in the state’s General Assembly on April 14, 1919. This limited suffrage act permitted women to vote only in presidential and municipal elections.” On June 4, 1919, less than a year after President Wilson voiced his support, the US Congress passed the 19th Amendment, dubbed the “Susan B. Anthony Amendment.” In order for the amendment to become part of the US Constitution, three-fourths of the states needed to vote in favor of ratification. The suffragists immediately turned to convincing 36 state legislatures, composed almost entirely of white men, to grant women the legal right to vote. By spring 1920, 35 states had voted in favor of the 19th Amendment. Seven states had rejected it, mainly in the South, where the “race issue” had dissuaded support for woman suffrage. Yet, it would be Tennessee, a Southern state, where the long “march for victory” would come to a head.

“During that year African American suffrage clubs helped to get 2,500 African American women to the polls in the city’s first election in which Black women were eligible to vote. The chair of the Tennessee Equal Suffrage League, Catherine Kenny, was awed with Pierce’s organizational skills and invited Pierce to address the first convention of the Tennessee League of Women Voters in the State Capitol’s lower chamber in May 1920. “What will the Negro women do with the vote?” the daughter of a free father and an enslaved mother asked her audience. “We will stand by the white women…We are asking only one thing—a square deal…We want recognition in all forms of this government. We want a state vocational school and a child welfare department of the state, and more room in state schools.”

After receiving a personal telegram from President Woodrow Wilson urging him to convene the Tennessee state legislature for a special session, Governor Albert Roberts put into motion the final steps in the long march to suffrage victory. In August 1920, the eyes of the nation were on Tennessee, and the country’s suffrage supporters and opponents flooded into Nashville to sway the vote in their favor. Both factions wore roses—red for “antis” and yellow for “pros”—to show their stance on the amendment. The Hermitage Hotel, which served as headquarters for both sides, was a sea of red and yellow, as lobbyists worked to influence state politicians. Carrie Chapman Catt, the leader of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, was present, while Alice Paul sent Sue Shelton White from West Tennessee to represent the National Woman’s Party. Once voting began, it did not take long for the Tennessee Senate to approve the amendment.

The House of Representatives, however, favored a motion that would delay or even halt the amendment if passed. “Speaker of the House Seth Walker, originally thought to be a supporter of women’s suffrage, changed his position and announced his opposition. Playing the race card, Walker exclaimed, “This is a white man’s country!” and further proclaimed that if women won the vote, southern Blacks would also demand the vote.” The representatives were closely split, and it was only the tying vote of Banks Turner from Gibson County that prevented the amendment from being cast aside.

It appeared that the ratification vote would also be a tie, but as the final vote began on August 18, another representative was reconsidering how he would respond. Harry T. Burn of McMinn County had in his possession A LETTER from his mother, Febb E. Burn, encouraging him to vote in favor of woman suffrage. Conflicted by his duty to represent his constituents and his own beliefs, Burn resolved that if he must be the deciding vote, he would vote in favor of woman suffrage. As the men voted in alphabetical order, it was apparent early on that Burn cast the swing vote needed to ratify the “Susan B. Anthony Amendment.” As soon as Burn uttered his “aye,” cheers were heard from the balcony. At the conclusion of the session, Turner and Burn had turned the tide in favor of the suffragists. The Tennessee General Assembly passed the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution on August 18, 1920, and on the 24th, Governor Albert H. Roberts certified Tennessee’s ratification. Tennessee provided the 36th and final state needed to ratify the Constitutional amendment.

Supporters of WOMAN SUFFRAGE in Tennessee had no way of knowing that their efforts would be critical to the national success of the movement. The women highlighted in this exhibition and thousands more across the state worked tirelessly to create a strong suffrage organization; their dedication and personal sacrifice made it possible for the “march to victory” to culminate in Tennessee. Despite what appeared to be the end of the Woman Suffrage Movement, the fight for EQUAL RIGHTS was far from over. For example, black men and women continued to have their enfranchisement challenged at the polls by “Jim Crow” laws in the South. Poll taxes, literacy tests, and other voter suppression tactics kept black voters from registering, thereby hindering their political power at local, state, and national levels.