The Johnson City TN Suffrage Coalition's Legacy Project:
"Passing the Torch"
Mural located on Ashe Street at the intersection of Earnest Street
The mural as depicted above carries the following story:
The Coalition commissioned artist Ellen Elmes to design and paint the mural. Depicted in three stages, her design honors the history of the Women’s Suffrage Movement with a focus on the Johnson City and Tennessee stories. It commemorates the centennial anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment through the celebration of a diverse and cohesive movement that continues to impact the social standing of women in our society today.
This mural centers around an artistic rendering of an historic march held in Johnson City on October 7, 1916. The design features portraits of many of Johnson City’s leading suffrage activists as well as national and local leaders in relevant movements; creating visual bridges as phases [phases are further explained below] from the early Suffragist ancestors onward through other enfranchisement activists ultimately leading to a diverse grouping of current people who have benefited from their sacrifices. No currently living people are depicted.
The mural also recognizes the fact that the 19th amendment did not grant all women the right to vote as it depicts four stages of legislation that impacted enfranchisement during the 20th century. Seen as a “passing of the torch,” beginning with the ratification of the 19th amendment in 1920, the mural illustrates the Snyder Act of 1924, which gave citizenship to First Nations people; the McCarran-Walter Act in 1952, which allowed people of Asian descent to immigrate and become citizens; and the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, which made voting restrictions to African American voters illegal.
- from the Johnson City TN Suffrage Centennial Celebration* Website: www.jctnsuffrage.org
The mural was unveiled and presented to Mayor Jenny Brock and the city on November 1, 2020. It was made possible by funding from community donors, Bravissima! Women Sponsoring the Arts, and Johnson City Public Art.
Procession of Centennial Suffrage Celebration Coalition
Coalition Co-leaders Joy Fulkerson, Linda Good; John Hunter and Ren Allen portraying Harry and Febb Burn
Girls Inc. presenters: Sydney Dixon (as Ida B. Wells); Kaeli Cross (as Mable Ping Hua-Lee); and Ashlyn Helsel (as Zitkala Sa)
Reece Museum Archivist, Rebecca Broffitt; Ellen and Don Elmes, muralists
Mayor Jenny Brock and young women of the future
From left to right: Coalition Co-leaders Linda Good and Joy Fulkerson, muralists Ellen Elmes and Don Elmes,
Historian, Tom Roberts, and Mayor Jenny Brock
Individual Panels of the Johnson City Centennial Celebration Mural:
Left Side Fabric Panel (wall size: 5’Wx12’H)
Right Side Fabric Panel (wall size: 5’Wx12’H)
The six women depicted here on two fabric segments represent the founding leaders of the early American Suffragist Movement. The women are:
(top row, l to r) Matilda Joslyn Gage, Lucy Stone, Sojourner Truth;
(bottom row, l to r) Lucretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton
The Movement was formally launched at the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention with the passage and adoption of twelve resolutions, (including that women have the right to vote), and a “Declaration of Sentiments,” with a passage from it stated on this panel: “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men and women are created equal.” The sunflower at the top of the panel symbolizes when the Suffragists first used in 1867 the Kansas state flower as part of their campaign for a state suffrage referendum. The yellow color later became one of the Suffragist’s iconic colors, along with purple and white.
The right side panel (two fabric segments) depicts contemporary teens and young women who are gazing back into the history of American, Tennessee, and Johnson City Suffragists whose determined activism over many years won the right to vote that women enjoy today. The cultural ethnicities of the young people rendered here (left to right, then below) reflect back to the African American, Asian American, Native American, and European American women depicted horizontally across the middle of the mural as 20th century leaders in the struggle for political franchise for all Americans. Three of the figures are meant to be symbolic of youth, proud of their female and cultural heritage, and are not portraits of particular individuals. The young woman using a wheelchair honors the work and achievement of Diana Elmes, a real person, now deceased, who was the artist's sister-in-law. As a young law student, she worked on a President’s Committee on Disabilities that developed the first disability legislation passed by Congress in the 1970s. She later worked in President Jimmy Carter's administration, occasionally writing speeches for Rosalynn Carter and participating in an international effort to develop disabilities legislation.
Upper Left of Middle Fabric Panel (wall size: approx. 12’H x 30’W)
Across the top of this middle panel imagery depicts other Woman Suffrage leaders working more broadly nationally and across the state of Tennessee to secure votes for women through ratifying the 19th Amendment. Carrie Chapman Catt, prominent Suffrage leader and president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, is featured here in the upper left corner on her celebratory return to New York City after the ratification in the Tennessee legislature of the 19th Amendment. To the right, Governor Albert J. Roberts is depicted signing the certificate of ratification passed by the Tennessee General Assembly on August 18, 1920, with a Suffragist looking on. This made Tennessee the 36th state to vote for the Amendment and thereby the final state needed to ratify the 19th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. When 24-year-old legislator Harry T. Burn changed his vote to support ratification, he broke a tie in the TN House of Representatives and made history. Harry Burn’s mother, Febb E. Burn, is depicted here to the right of the governor. She wielded significant influence upon her son’s last-minute, changed vote when she wrote him a letter asking him to “be a good boy” and vote for the amendment, (an abbreviated segment of her letter is rendered here).
Upper Middle Segment of Middle Fabric Panel (wall size: approx. 12’H x 30’W)
Many Johnson City leaders worked closely with other Suffragists across the state and nation, traveling to Knoxville, Nashville, and even Washington DC to plan, organize and facilitate the work of amendment ratification. The state leaders centered at the top of this panel include (from left to right): Juno Frankie Pierce, (founder of the Tennessee Vocational School for Colored Girls in Nashville), who was invited by Catherine Kenny to speak at the 1916 Woman Suffrage Parade event in Johnson City; Catherine Kenny, Chattanooga organizer of numerous suffrage clubs in rural Tennessee; Sue Shelton White, Chairwoman of the National Women’s Party of TN; and Mary Church Terrell, president of the National Association of Colored Women, and founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Woman Suffrage Association.
Lower Right Segment of Middle Fabric Panel (wall size: approx. 12’H x 30’W)
On the left side of this segment is Johnson City Suffragist Margaret Hayes Powell, who once served as Vice-Chair of the Nashville Congressional Women’s Union. To her right, is depicted Mary Eliza Shaut White who served on many local, statewide and national organizations—including as Chairwoman of the National Woman’s Party for one year—in her commitment to ratifying the 19thAmendment. Her activism gave her the honor of leading the Johnson City 1916 parade atop a horse and draped in a Greco-Roman, goddess-style cape, as a re-enactment of Inez Milholland’s lead in Washington DC’s famous 1913 Woman’s Suffrage Parade organized by Alice Paul for the day before President-elect Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration.
Middle Threesome of Lower Segment of Middle Fabric Panel (wall size: approx. 12’H x 30’W)
Knoxville Suffragist Mary Nelson Meriwether is depicted on the left side of the cluster of three women along the lower edge of this mural panel. She was one of the featured speakers in the program following the 1916 “Vote for Women” parade in Johnson City. She served as the Tennessee Equal Suffrage Vice-Chairman, and as the Representative for the Tennessee Branch of the Congressional Union to the National Headquarters in 1916. In the middle of the threesome is Mildred Crystal Smith, who resided with her husband Amzi Smith in Johnson City, and who was photographed attending the Women’s Federation Convention of 1903. The third woman portrayed here does not represent a real person – she just represents the spirit of joy and pride that many participants in the Johnson City parade must have felt that day.
Veterans Band and Cars with Riders in Lower Horizontal Segment of Mural (wall size: approx. 12’H x 30’W)
This segment continues the lower horizontal sweep of images in the mural celebrating and depicting a portion of the Votes for Women parade in Johnson City in 1916 organized by the Tennessee Branch of the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage. Starting from the left end, the fife and drum corps band from the Old Soldiers Home (later Mountain Home) of the early 20th century are depicted at the left end of the parade line to represent other participants who added to the spirit of the march that day. Some veterans of the Civil War and administrators of the Soldiers Home were husbands of Johnson City suffrage activists at the time, including Paul Eave Divine depicted here driving the car in front of the Fife and Drum Corps, with his Suffragist wife Lulabelle Milburn Divine seated beside him. In the car above and further to the right, grandma and Suffragist Ida Florence Potter Harris rides next to her husband William Pond Harris (of Harris Manufacturing) along with local children in support of “Votes for Mothers.”
Middle of the Middle Fabric Panel (wall size: approx. 12’H x 30’W)
In the middle of this central segment of the mural, the design broadly sweeps to the right with an overlapping of images that represent the achievement of American women winning the vote – at different time periods in American history and inclusive of citizens of diverse ethnicities. The first extended arm, ending in a Caucasian women’s hand casting a ballot, is cloaked in the Woman’s Party ratification banner. This segment features Alice Paul, National Chairman of the Women’s Party and a primary leader and strategist of the campaign for the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Alice Paul met in 1916 in Knoxville TN with Mrs. Eliza White and Mrs. Brading, Johnson City Suffragists, along with other Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage leaders to further their campaign for ratifying the 19th Amendment.
The next extended arm, ending in an Asian American hand at the ballot box, features Dr. Mabel Ping-Hua Lee, a Chinese American scholar and educator who became involved in the suffrage movement at age sixteen in 1912. She helped lead, on horseback, a parade in New York City that year, advocating for a woman’s right to vote. Her 1914 essay “The Meaning of Woman Suffrage,” urged the importance of women’s voting rights to strengthen American democracy. The background of this segment is in a fan shape, and combines colors and imagery from several Asian flags, including the Chinese, Taiwanese, Vietnamese, and Japanese flags. Asian Americans were officially made citizens and franchised to vote in 1952 by the McCarran-Walter Act.
Sweeping further right in this middle segment is the extended arm and hand of a Native American woman casting her ballot. The women’s rights leader featured here is Zitkala-Sa, who was a Lakota Sioux women’s rights activist, writer, teacher, and musician during the early to mid-1900s. She worked with determination for indigenous people in America to become American citizens and hence, gain the right to vote. Sa also advocated for unity among all Indian nations in the fight for citizenship, which led to the passage of the Indian Citizenship Act in 1924. However, it wasn’t until 1957 that Utah became the last state to finally grant their Native American citizens the right to vote. Next to her figure is featured, on the left, the emblem of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indian tribe representing local Native American heritage; and on the right, a green field representing lands entrusted to all United States citizens.
The fourth and last extended arm and hand depicts the hard-won casting of a ballot by an African American woman, forty-five years after the ratification of the 19th Amendment, when the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965. With the American flag behind her, Ida B. Wells is featured wielding the flag of Justice. Fighting for equality and justice was the beacon of her adult life as an educator, journalist, and civil rights and women’s rights activist in Memphis, TN and Chicago, IL. In the 1890s, through careful investigative reporting and at great risk to herself, she bravely documented and wrote the truth about lynchings in the South. She later organized the Ida B. Wells Women’s Club and Alpha Suffrage Club, the first suffrage club for black women, and became a founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Photos of the installation; photo documentation by Larry Smith