The year was 1920. Nashville was blistering hot. The all-male Tennessee legislature was meeting in order to decide whether to ratify the 19th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. If this amendment were ratified, it would bring a change that would grant women the right to vote.
Legislators in favor of ratification wore a yellow rose in their lapel, an indication of a promise to ratify. Those opposed wore a red rose in their lapel, a sure sign of voting it down. The roll call had landed on Harry T. Burn, who at 24, was the youngest state lawmaker. He had voted twice to table the amendment. On his lapel was a red rose. But beneath the rose, in the pocket of his suit jacket, was a letter delivered that morning from his mother, Febb Burn.
Between updates on the farm and the family, she had slipped in three references to the vote.On page 2 of the letter, Febb wrote to her son, “Hurrah and vote for suffrage, and don’t keep them in doubt.”On page four, referring to reelection, she wrote, “I hope you see enough of politicians to know it is not one of the greatest things to be one. What say ye??”And on page six: “Don’t forget to be a good boy and help Mrs. ‘Thomas Catt’ with her ‘rats.’ (A reference to the President of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, Mrs. Carrie Chapman Catt) Is she the one that put “rat” in ratification? Ha! No more from Mama this time. With lots of love.”
Katie Mettler, an assignment reporter for The Washington Post, has written an engaging and moving article titled “A Mother’s Letter, a Son’s Choice and the Incredible Moment Women won the Vote.” The article includes a report of the arguments against women’s right to vote.
It is hard to read the words and not be angered by the underlying attitudes they represent. There are photos and and interesting follow up on the trajectory of the lives of the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Harry Burn. Overarching all, are the words and love of Febb Burn, Harry’s mother. Until his death in 1977, Burn treasured his mother’s letter. It was donated to the C. M. McClung Museum in Knoxville, alongside the rest of his personal papers. In those papers was another cherished document that McMinn County did not update before 900 women registered to vote in October 1920. Febb Burns was first in line. “THIS IS TO CERTIFY That Mrs. J.L. Burn is a Legal Voter,” her card read. “His Registration No. is 1.”
The Role of Black Women
August 18, 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, the Constitutional Amendment which guaranteed all American women the right to vote – in theory. However, Jim Crow voter suppression laws made it impossible for Black women to vote until President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the 1965 Voting Rights Act…just 55 years ago.
The dominant narrative about the Women’s Suffrage Movement has been viewed through the experiences of white women, to our shame. We must not forget the continuous and major role that African-American women played in obtaining the right to vote in 1920 and how they persisted and continue to persist in the struggle for human equality.
Black women marched alongside white women, attended and spoke at suffrage conventions. They wrote books and published tracts and organized groups and inspired women all over the country to press for the vote.
Many African-American women who began their activism as abolitionists, became nationally known as Suffragettes. Their names are heralded today: Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Coralee Cook, Angelina Grimke, Charlotta Rollin, Mary Ann Shad Cary, Ida B. Wells, Mary Church Terrell, Anna Julia Cooper, Rosa Parks, Charlotte Vandine Forten, Harriet Forten Purvis, Margaretta Forten, Sarah Remond, Josephine St Pierre Ruffin, Nannie Helen Burroughs, Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer and Diane Nash.
First emerging in the 1820’s, women have been deeply engaged in social and cultural movements for civil rights. Many of those originally involved in the Abolitionist Movement moved from there into Women’s Suffrage and into the movement for humane labor laws pertaining especially to children and women and from there into the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s. In all of these movements, racial discrimination and prejudice created obstacles and gulfs—a few of which were overcome, but the deepest were not. That being said, today’s world is decidedly different. Movements around the world find women of amazing diversity working together for the well being of all.
Nsenga K.. Burton is an award-winning professor, journalist, filmmaker and producer. She has written a very readable and short reflection about 19 very significant Black women who were part of Women’s Suffrage Movement. It is an enlightening read.