All American women vote today thanks to Tennessee, yet that message is largely unknown in our state.
For the last 31 years, I have worked to educate the public about Tennessee's pivotal role in the 19th Amendment's ratification. The late, great Carol Lynn Yellin wrote "Countdown in Tennessee" in the December 1978 issue of American Heritage magazine. She interviewed Rep. Joseph Hanover of Memphis and Rep. Harry Burn of Niota. She was my mentor who impressed upon me this history must be preserved. Because of her extensive research, we published "The Perfect 36: Tennessee Delivers Woman Suffrage," which was donated to every school, college and library in the state.
Before February 1998, there was nothing inside the state capitol building that depicted Tennessee's important role in this nonviolent revolution. Then-state Sen. Steve Cohen, now my congressman, sought to rectify that. He understood the importance of public art and worked with the Tennessee Arts Commission to hold a blind competition. Noted artist/sculptor Alan LeQuire of Nashville won that competition and his bas relief sculpture was unveiled between the House and Senate chambers.
It is the only item in the state capitol that celebrates our state's greatest gift to this country — the enfranchisement of 27 million American women. Since 1998, LeQuire has been commissioned to do more suffragist public art in Knoxville, Nashville, Memphis and Chattanooga.
With the continuing controversy about Nathan Bedford Forrest's bust inside the state capitol, we have an opportunity to spotlight the Tennessee suffrage heroes. Benton County Mayor Brett Lashlee, a relative of Forrest, wants the bust placed in the Nathan Bedford Forrest State Park where it can properly depict the context of his history there.
The Tennessean reported on June 8, 2020, "The bust of Confederate General and early Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest has prompted protests for decades since it was first put on display in the Tennessee State Capitol in 1978."
Why not place it in the state park where more people can visit and see it?
This year is the national centennial of women winning the right to vote. Busts of the three suffrage heroes — Reps. Joseph Hanover, Banks Turner and Harry Burn — could be placed in that space. LeQuire has already sculpted Hanover (for the Memphis monument) and Burn (for Knoxville). The state could commission a bust of Turner (from Gibson County) who changed his vote on the House floor from "for" to "against" tabling the motion and kept the 19th Amendment alive for the decisive vote. These men believed in democracy and the rule of law. They deserve to be remembered.
Jacque Hillman of Jackson had the idea in 2016 to do a Tennessee Woman Suffrage Heritage Trail to preserve this history. We have identified suffrage-related markers, monuments, statues, residences, gravesites and other resources for the trail. She also published a book written by Bill Haltom titled "Why Can't Mother Vote? Joseph Hanover and the Unfinished Business of Democracy."
Having the three suffrage heroes displayed in the state capitol would be a great way to continue the suffrage celebration.
Paula F. Casey of Memphis is a speaker and co-founder of the Tennessee Woman Suffrage Heritage Trail. Learn more at www.tnwomansuffrageheritagetrail.com.