Gaston: Abby Crawford Milton, advocate for women

Gaston: Abby Crawford Milton, advocate for women

November 22nd, 2015 by By Kay Baker Gaston in Opinion Columns
Abby Crawford Milton

Abby Crawford Milton

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

One hundred years ago, in 1915, Abby Crawford Milton became co-chairwoman with Nashville's Catherine Kenny of a joint campaign committee to develop clubs promoting women's suffrage throughout Tennessee. Her husband, George Fort Milton Sr., had been editor of the pro-suffrage Chattanooga News since purchasing a two-thirds interest in the paper from Jerome Pound in 1909. He and two other men founded a men's suffrage league in 1914. His wife joined the Chattanooga Equal Suffrage Association in 1915. She recruited in all of the women's clubs, and in 1917 helped Lookout Mountain's Suffrage League secure the local enfranchisement for women. She traveled across the state with her young daughters, Corinne, Sarah Ann and Frances, to support the cause.

In 1919, she was elected president of the Tennessee Women Suffrage Association. In 1920, she became the first president of the League of Women Voters of Tennessee. Three months later, the League and other women's groups successfully lobbied the state legislature for ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment on Aug. 18, 1920.

Abby Crawford Milton was born in Milledgeville, Ga., on Feb. 6, 1882, to newspaper publisher Charles Peter Crawford and Anna Ripley Orme. She was a graduate of Georgia Women's College and later enrolled in the Chattanooga College of Law.

In 1904, Abby married George Fort Milton Sr., born in 1869 in Macon, Ga., to Dr. Harvey Oliver Milton and Sarah Fort Milton. His mother was a sister of Chattanooga lawyer Col. Tomlinson Fort. George's first wife, Caroline Mounger McCall, died in 1897 and left a young son, George Fort Milton Jr. (1894-1955) who became Abby's stepson. In 1920 George Jr. married Alice Warner (1901-1997), a daughter of Porter Warner Sr. and Katherine "Kitty" Jones.

In 1924, George Fort Milton died in Murfreesboro while campaigning for Democratic presidential candidate and former Chattanoogan Williams Gibbs McAdoo. His widow gave the seconding nomination speech for McAdoo as a delegate-at-large to the Democratic National Convention. She promoted the establishment of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 1926, and in 1930, she unsuccessfully ran for the state Senate. She took a stand supporting the Tennessee Valley Authority, which her husband had also supported. She served on the board of the Chattanooga News until it was sold to Roy McDonald in 1939 and became the Chattanooga News-Free Press.

Abby Crawford Milton was also a writer. In 1925 she published "A Report of the Tennessee League of Women Voters," followed by "The Magic Switch," poetry for children; "Caesar's Wife and Other Poems" (1930); "Lookout Mountain" (1934); "Flower Lore" (1956); and "Grandma Says" (1951).

Her most significant literary contribution was her assistance to Emma Bell Miles (1879-1919) in publishing "Our Southern Birds" just days before Miles' untimely death from tuberculosis in March 1919. Five years earlier, George Fort Milton had hired Miles to work on the staff of the Chattanooga News, where she published poems, short nature essays and a signed column "Fountain Square Conversations," which ran from April 3 to June 30, 1914.

In 1930, Abby Crawford Milton enlisted the help of naturalist-writer Robert Sparks Walker in editing and publishing the collected poems of Emma Bell Miles in "Strains from a Dulcimore" (1930). This project may have been underway as early as 1922, when Abby and her husband brought a manuscript to discuss with Walker. Her preface was the first attempt to tell the story of Miles' life. "Her gifts, generous and unusual to the point of genius, were of a brilliance that neither poverty, nor disease, nor care, nor toil, nor any human ill, nor death itself could quench," Milton wrote. She concluded by stating, "In loving token of friendship and lasting faith in the author's genius, this book is compiled." Preserving the work of this talented writer, artist and naturalist was one of Abby Crawford Milton's finest accomplishments.

Her energy unabated with the passage of time, Milton served as women's chairman for Chattanooga's Centennial Celebration in 1938 and the following year represented Tennessee on the New York World's Fair planning committee.

In 1947, Florida's United Daughters of the Confederacy named her poet laureate. Milton spent her last years at a retirement home in Clearwater, Fla. Her birthdays were regularly reported in the Chattanooga News Free Press —on her 109th she was still "a live wire," according to her daughter, Frances. She died the following year, 1997, at the age of 110.

Kay Baker Gaston is a regional historian and the biographer of Emma Bell Miles. For more visit Chattahistoricalassoc.org.

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