McMinn County History
McMinn County, located in southeast Tennessee, was established by the Tennessee General Assembly in 1819. Named for Governor Joseph McMinn, the county was created from lands ceded by the Cherokees in the Hiwassee Purchase.
Calhoun, the first town was established in 1819 across the Hiwassee River from the Cherokee Indian Agency. The first county court meetings were held in the home of Major John Walker in Calhoun. Athens, fifteen miles north of Calhoun, was chartered on August 23, 1822, by an act of Legislature. In 1823, they finally moved the courts to the county seat of Athens. By 1830 McMinn County had a population of over 14,000, including 1,250 slaves.
The Hiwassee Railroad began construction of one of Tennessee’s first railroads in McMinn County in 1837. Plans called for a line from Dalton, Georgia, through McMinn County to Knoxville, a distance of ninety-eight miles. Financial problems and a general economic depression statewide halted construction in 1839 after the completion of sixty-six miles of graded roadbed and a bridge at Calhoun. Work was resumed in 1849 by the East Tennessee and Georgia Railroad. Athens served as the railroad’s headquarters until 1855, when the central office was moved to Knoxville.
With the arrival of the railroad came the new towns of Riceville, Sanford, and Mouse Creek (now Niota), which developed along the line. During the Civil War, the railroad gained added significance, serving as a vital link for transporting troops and supplies between the Lower and Upper South.
Like most East Tennesseans, McMinn Countians experienced divided loyalties during the Civil War. Although Tennessee joined the Confederacy in 1861, the county furnished troops to both Confederate and Union armies. While no major battles were fought within the county, thousands of troops passed through, and the area suffered severe economic hardships.
Following the war, lack of capital hampered growth and development, but by the late nineteenth century, recovery, spurred by the railroad, was well underway. Two new towns, Jellico Junction (later Englewood) and Etowah, were established along railway lines. Etowah came into existence in 1905 as a railroad town, the Atlanta Division headquarters of the Louisville and Nashville (L&N). By the 1920s employment reached over two thousand, and some twenty trains passed through Etowah daily.
In 1920 McMinn County’s young representative to the Tennessee legislature, Harry T. Burn of Niota, cast the deciding vote approving the Nineteenth Amendment which granted women the right to vote. The Senate had passed the measure, but a tie vote occurred twice in the House. Having previously voted with the opposition, Burn switched his vote, breaking the tie, and making Tennessee the required thirty-sixth state to approve ratification
In 1921 McMinn County became the site of the construction of the first concrete highway in Tennessee, a fourteen-mile stretch of the Lee Highway (U.S. 11) from Athens to Calhoun. A small section of this road is still in use today.
McMinn County suffered severe economic hardship during the Great Depression. Etowah was most affected since its economic base was tied to a single industry. When repair shops were closed and the division headquarters of the L&N moved to Knoxville, employment in the county fell to fewer than one hundred. To aid in recovery, the National Youth Administration built a scout lodge in Etowah. While World War II brought a temporary revival, the boom days of the railroad town were over.
Perhaps the most notable event in McMinn’s history occurred on August 1, 1946, when returning GIs overthrew a corrupt political machine with ties to Ed “Boss” Crump. A large number of armed deputies took ballot boxes to the county jail to be “counted” behind barricaded doors, refusing requests for GI observers to witness the counting. After several hours of a raging gunfire battle, those inside the jail were dynamited into surrendering. This “Battle of Athens,” in which, miraculously, no one was killed, resulted in governmental reform. The county court system of government was replaced by a county council-manager system, the first in Tennessee.
Following World War II, McMinn County experienced rapid growth and economic development as existing industries and businesses expanded and several corporations, including Bowaters, the world’s largest newsprint producer, established major plants in the area. Educational opportunities increased with the expansion of programs at Tennessee Wesleyan College and the opening of Cleveland State Community College. Also, dairy farming increased during the first three decades following the war. The presence of Mayfield Dairy Farms, one of the largest dairy processors in the Southeast, was a major factor in stimulating the growth in dairying.
McMinn County’s primary historical attractions are the exhibits at the L&N Depot, Etowah; the Englewood Textile Museum; and the McMinn County Living Heritage Museum, Athens, which interprets the county’s history from the days of the Cherokees to the economic transformations of the 1940s through thirty exhibits. Antebellum landmark buildings include the Old College of Tennessee Wesleyan College and the Cleague Building, both in Athens. The county’s 2000 population was 49,015.
Excerpts by Bill Akins
Battle of Athens
Officially, the “Battle of Athens” in McMinn County began and ended on August 1, 1946. Following a heated competition for local offices, veterans in the insurgent GI Non-Partisan League took up arms to prevent a local courthouse ring headed by state senator Paul Cantrell and linked to Memphis political boss Ed Crump from stealing the election. When Sheriff Pat Mansfield's deputies absconded to the jail with key ballot boxes, suspicious veterans took action. A small group of veterans broke into the local National Guard Armory, seized weapons and ammunition, and proceeded to the jail to demand the return of the ballot boxes. The Cantrell-Mansfield deputies refused, and the veterans, now numbering several hundred, opened fire. The ensuing battle lasted several hours and ended only after the dynamiting of the front of the jail. The surrender of the deputies did not end the riot, and the mob was still turning over police cars and burning them hours later. Within days the local election commission swore in the veteran candidates as duly elected. The McMinn County veterans had won the day in a hail of gunfire, dynamite, and esprit de corps.
The battle of Athens stands as the most violent manifestation of a regional phenomenon of the post-World War II era. Seasoned veterans of the European and Pacific theaters returned in 1945 and 1946 to southern communities riddled with vice, economic stagnation, and deteriorating schools. Undemocratic, corrupt, and mossback rings and machines kept an iron grip on local policy and power. Moreover, their commitment to the status quo threatened the economic opportunities touched off by the war. Across the South, veterans launched insurgent campaigns to oust local political machines they regarded as impediments to economic “progress.”
In Athens, the Cantrell-Mansfield ring colluded with bootleg and gambling interests, shook down local citizens and tourists for fees, and regularly engaged in electoral chicanery. While communities such as Knoxville, Oak Ridge, and Chattanooga boomed, Athens languished, and veterans returned to a community beset with more problems than opportunities. When Cantrell and Mansfield employed their typical methods to nullify the veterans' votes and reform efforts, the ex-soldiers resorted with the skills and determination that had brought them victory overseas.
Although recalled fifty years later with a certain amount of local pride, the battle of Athens initially proved a source of embarrassment, and many residents abhorred the violent, extralegal actions of the veterans. The image of gun-wielding hillbilly ex-soldiers shooting it out with the Cantrell-Mansfield “thugs” that blazed across national and regional newspaper headlines enhanced East Tennessee's reputation for violence and lawlessness. The Good Government League, empowered by the veterans' victory, scored few successes in its efforts to eradicate the vice, corruption, and arbitrary rule of machine government. Nevertheless, the battle of Athens exemplified the southern veteran activism of the postwar period and defined the disruptive political impact of World War II.
By Jennifer E. Brooks
Civilian Conservation Corps
On March 31, 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed legislation to create the Civilian Conservation Corps, the first of the New Deal agencies. The CCC employed young men and gave them an opportunity to develop new skills and prepare them for future employment as the nation recovered from the Great Depression.
Originally established as the "Emergency Conservation Work Program," the CCC was renamed in 1937. Although there are no official records, estimates of the number of young men who participated in the nine-year program reach approximately three million. Congress extended the program to include African Americans, Native Americans, and World War I veterans. Enrollees performed a variety of conservation activities including reforestation, soil conservation, road construction, flood and fire control, and agricultural management. The CCC also completed a number of tasks associated with the development and construction of state and national parks. The CCC provided food, clothing, and shelter, as well as education, vocational training, and health care. The Department of Labor, the War Department, and the Department of Interior administered the CCC; state and local labor offices assisted with selection and enrollment procedures.
The CCC's Fourth Corps area, District C, included Tennessee plus western North Carolina, northern Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. Organized on April 25, 1933, District C fielded forty companies, including three "Veteran White," one "Veteran Colored," two "Junior Colored," and thirty-four "Junior White" camps. Tennessee supported eleven district headquarters located in Memphis, Union City, Jackson, Paris, Columbia, Nashville, Tullahoma, Cookeville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Johnson City and fifteen branch offices located in Dyersburg, Murfreesboro, McMinnville, Shelbyville, Clarksville, Springfield, Cleveland, LaFollette, Maryville, Loudon, Rockwood, Morristown, Elizabethton, Kingsport, and Bristol. The state's first CCC company set up headquarters at Camp Cordell Hull near Limestone Cave in Unicoi County in 1933. By the following year, Tennessee sponsored thirty companies.
Enrollment was offered to single men between the ages of seventeen and twenty-eight; however, the reinstituted CCC of 1937 made enrollment available to men between the ages of seventeen and twenty-three. Applicants had to prove their marital status, provide evidence they had been unable to find employment for at least two months, and demonstrate that their families could not provide education or training comparable to that made available to members of the corps. Enrollees signed up for a minimum of six months, and few members participated for more than one or two years. The state's motto, "Select, rather than collect," reflected the high honor associated with participation in the CCC. Tennessee's CCC boys earned thirty dollars per month, twenty-five dollars of which went to families or was deposited with the War Department until the corps member received his "honorable discharge."
Tennessee's total number of CCC companies reached its peak in July 1937, when the state supported forty-six camps. By the time the CCC disbanded, more than seventy thousand Tennesseans had served. In 1942 changing American ideas about the CCC and congressional pressure to end the program resulted in the agency's dissolution, but in Tennessee, the CCC had completed work in seventeen state parks as well as in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The national success of the CCC is directly attributed to Roosevelt, who seldom compromised his values concerning the need for the agency and a national conservation movement.
Ruth Nichols, Nashville
Suggested Reading(s): John A. Salmond, The Civilian Conservation Corps, 1933-1942 (1967); Carroll Van West, The New Deal Landscape of Tennessee (2001).
McMinn and surrounding counties had groups of young men who joined the CCC. One CCC camp was located not far from the current Athens hospital on Hwy 39 west.
While New England is the birthplace of America's textile industry and the Carolinas are known for massive textile production, the small town of Englewood, Tennessee, serves as a reminder of the ties between industry, workers, and the resulting community. Covering more than 140 years of textile production, the history of Englewood Mills reflects ongoing changes in transportation, market, and consumer demands.
In 1857 John J. Dixon founded the Eureka Cotton Mills, laying the cornerstone of an industry which was central to Englewood's economic stability and livelihood. Yarn and warp products made with raw cotton from the surrounding area were sold in neighboring southern states. Elisha Brient shared in the operational responsibilities of the mill, and by 1875 the Brient family exercised sole proprietorship.
The township reflected the changes of mill ownership and improvements in transportation as the settlement relocated twice and changed its name three times. The original site of the mill village, Eureka Mills, was renamed Englewood by the Brients in 1894. Realizing that the railroad provided a more efficient means of shipping than wagons, the family moved the mill complex closer to the Louisville and Nashville railroad line, absorbing the preexisting settlement of Tellico Junction. The communities joined in 1908, adopting the name of Englewood. The original town site is now known as Old Englewood.
As the Eureka Cotton Mills thrived and expanded its product line to include men's union suits, the success of Englewood's textile mill plus its crucial railroad line attracted more business. The Englewood Manufacturing Company, which made hosiery, was established in 1913.
Englewood developed into a typical company town, supporting the needs of its workers with a company store, saw mill, blacksmith shop, gristmill, two churches, and a one-room school house. Living in company-owned rental housing, workers supplemented a subsistence lifestyle by planting small vegetable gardens and raising livestock. By 1914 neighborhoods of mill houses had expanded to accommodate the growing workforce of three hundred.
The textile workers were typically white, subsistence farm families searching for a better livelihood. They found that the company town provided modest housing, a sense of community, and the security of a steady income. In the mills, workers experienced an environment filled with loud machinery, heat, humidity, and lint-filled air. Often several generations of families spent their entire lives working in the mills, with every family member contributing to the household income. Men were supervisors and machine operators. Women worked in the spinning room, ensuring that cotton slivers were correctly spun into strands of thread. Young boys removed full bobbins, while girls performed tasks such as operating spinning machines. Many families depended upon their children's incomes for survival.
The Great Depression forced the closure of Eureka Cotton Mills and the Englewood Manufacturing Company. Englewood survived the depression through federal and state government relief programs in 1933-35 that provided temporary jobs in the Civil Works Administration and Tennessee Emergency Relief Administration.
During World War II the Englewood mills depended upon women to fill the vacant positions of men in military service. The abandoned Eureka Cotton Mills building served as a United National Clothing Center, one of eight locations in the U.S. that processed clothing donations for shipment to war-torn countries. In August 1949 a workers' union came to the Englewood Garment Company, although massive unionization failed to materialize as postwar America deemed textile employment a female occupation and not worthy of serious organizing efforts.
In the last half of the twentieth century, the Englewood mills encountered adverse changes in the textile industry, including a shift in consumer preferences to synthetic fabrics, the increased importation of less expensive products, and the competition from newer factories with more extensive mechanization. Although Englewood was home to twenty-four textile mills over its history, by the mid-1990s only Eureka Sportswear and Allied Hosiery mills remained in operation.
Visitors to the old Englewood mills can still see various structural remains including the crumbling brick walls and rusty boilers of the 1907 Eureka Cotton Mills and the vacant 1913 brick building of the Englewood Manufacturing Company. Many workers' cottages survive as private residences located in neighborhoods established during the company town's prosperity. The Englewood Textile Museum offers a past and present perspective of Englewood's mill, tracing the evolution of the industry and documenting the roles of the workers in the context of mill labor and community life.
Mayfield Dairy Farms
Established in 1923, Mayfield Dairy Farms has evolved into one of the major southern milk and ice cream products companies. It began as an antebellum family farm in McMinn County that continued as a family-run business into the late twentieth century. In 1833 Thomas Brummitt Mayfield and Sarah Rudd Mayfield established a farm on 510 acres east of Athens on the Madisonville Road. In 1923 Thomas Brient Mayfield Jr. took the family's forty-five-cow dairy operation and bought an existing ice cream factory in Athens, creating the Mayfield Creamery.
The creamery proved successful and remained in business during the Great Depression. In the postwar boom of the late 1940s, the Mayfields decided to upgrade and expand their operations, building a new modern milk and ice cream plant in Athens between 1948 and 1950. Over the next two decades, the Mayfields continued to modernize and improve operations; during the 1950s, for instance, the dairy was the first in Tennessee to ship its milk in mechanically refrigerated trucks. In 1976 Mayfield Farm was designated an official Tennessee Century Farm; the following year Mayfield expanded its ice cream sales into the Atlanta market.
In the mid-1980s Goldie D. Mayfield and her children operated a 1,400-acre farm, while the company expanded sales of the Mayfield Dairy brand name across the state. Dean Foods of Franklin Park, Illinois, acquired Mayfield in 1990, but kept everyday affairs in the capable hands of the Mayfield family. The company built its second plant, for milk production, at Braselton, Georgia, in 1997. Currently, Scottie Mayfield is president of Mayfield Dairy Farms, and Rob Mayfield is vice-president, production, and technical service manager. Milk from 325 farms across the South supply milk to Mayfield Dairy Farms. Its Athens plant employs 575 workers.
Carroll Van West, Middle Tennessee State University
Joseph McMinn Governor and Cherokee Agent
Joseph McMinn, farmer, state legislator, Indian agent, and governor, was born at Westchester, Pennsylvania, on June 22, 1758. McMinn served in the Continental army during the American Revolution. After the war, he moved to the future Tennessee and bought a farm in Hawkins County in 1786.
In 1790 Territorial Governor William Blount appointed McMinn to county office, and in 1794 he represented Hawkins County in the Territorial General Assembly. As a member of the state constitutional convention in 1796, McMinn was chosen to deliver a copy of the state constitution to U.S. Secretary of State Timothy Pickering in Philadelphia. He was elected to the first Tennessee State Senate and later served three times as Speaker of the Senate. He was governor of Tennessee for three terms between 1815 and 1821. During his tenure, the Jackson Purchase was completed, the State Capitol was moved from Knoxville to Murfreesboro, and the Bank of Tennessee was incorporated.
After retiring from the gubernatorial office in 1821, McMinn bought a farm near Calhoun. Two years later, he was appointed as agent of the United States to the Cherokees. He died on November 17, 1824, at the Cherokee Agency on the Hiwassee River and was buried near Calhoun. Both McMinn County and McMinnville in Warren County are named in his honor.
John H. Thweatt
Tennessee Wesleyan College
The institution now known as Tennessee Wesleyan College was established in 1857, when the Holston Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church South acquired the property of the Athens Female College, chartered in 1854 by the Order of Odd Fellows. The school continued to operate as a women’s college until 1865, when it passed from the control of the Methodist Episcopal Church South to that of the Methodist Episcopal Church, a body composed of Union sympathizers. Renamed East Tennessee Wesleyan College, it initially only admitted male students, but two years later it became coeducational.
Divisions within the church, frequent changes in leadership, and financial hardships plagued the school’s early years. John Spence achieved some stability during his tenure as president. He strengthened the academic program and in 1867, unlike many southern colleges, the college required four years of study for the baccalaureate degree. Upon the death of former U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant, and in an attempt to appeal to potential northern supporters, the institution was renamed Grant Memorial University, an unpopular move with Confederate sympathizers.
In 1889 the Athens college merged with Chattanooga University, with the two campuses governed by a single board of trustees and chancellor under the auspices of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Once again, the name changed to U. S. Grant University. From the beginning, consolidation brought intense rivalry and conflict. At first the school of liberal arts remained in Athens, with the schools of law, medicine, and theology in Chattanooga. When Chattanooga established a competing liberal arts curriculum in 1904, alumni and other supporters of the Athens school filed a lawsuit. The court ruled in favor of the Chattanooga campus, and the Athens branch became a preparatory school for the newly named University of Chattanooga.
The Athens and Chattanooga schools were separated in 1925, and the trustees of the Athens institution adopted the name Tennessee Wesleyan College. President James L. Robb concentrated on building a strong two-year college, which attained recognition for its academic program, particularly in the area of teacher education. The Great Depression and World War II threatened enrollment and financial stability, but returning veterans swelled the student population and necessitated expansion of faculty and facilities.
Under the leadership of Robb’s successor, Dr. LeRoy Martin, Tennessee Wesleyan returned to senior college status in 1954. During the 1960s the school achieved its highest enrollment. In subsequent years, however, the school faced renewed enrollment problems because of the competition from four community colleges established within fifty miles of Athens.
Throughout its history, Tennessee Wesleyan has experienced financial and enrollment problems, but has exhibited remarkable resilience, consistently maintaining its commitment to a strong liberal arts curriculum and to the value of church-related education. Its president in 2001 was Dr. James Dawson.
Bill Akins and Genevieve Wiggins
Woman Suffrage Movement
"The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State on account of sex"--Nineteenth Amendment, U.S. Constitution.
In August 1920 the Tennessee General Assembly ratified the Nineteenth Amendment and handed the ballot to millions of American women. The amendment's jubilant supporters dubbed Tennessee "the perfect 36" because, as the thirty-sixth of the forty-eight states to approve the amendment, it rounded out the three-fourths majority required to amend the Constitution. The legislature's historic vote inaugurated a new era for women and for politics and secured Tennessee's place in the annals of American women's history.
Tennessee became the final battleground in a struggle that began in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. The demand for the vote was the most controversial of the twelve resolutions adopted at the first women's rights convention in the United States and the only one that did not win unanimous approval. Suffrage seemed like such an outlandish idea at the time that it made feminists easy targets for ridicule. Still, women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony persisted and made the vote the focal point of the crusade for women's rights.
Suffragists (as the advocates of votes for women were called) faced stiff opposition, especially in the South. Long after the Civil War, many southerners continued to remember that feminism had emerged as an offshoot of abolitionism. More importantly, the call for women's rights challenged a precept deeply rooted in religion, law, and custom: the belief that women should be subordinate to men.
But in the South as in the North, some women resented their inferior status and joined the quest for suffrage. Elizabeth Avery Meriwether of Memphis was among the first. In the early 1870s she wrote letters to newspapers and briefly published her own journal to promote women's rights and prohibition. Meriwether attempted to cast a ballot in the 1876 presidential election, then rented a theater to explain why she believed women should have the right to vote.
After Elizabeth Meriwether left Tennessee in 1883, her sister-in-law Lide Meriwether took up the cause. Lide Meriwether served as president of the state Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) for the next seventeen years and until her retirement in 1900 led the fight against liquor and for women's rights. The WCTU played a central role in the debate over the hotly contested issue of prohibition: Union members lobbied the state legislature, circulated petitions, and held prayer meetings at polling places where referenda outlawing liquor were on the ballot. As a result of the temperance crusade, many women became convinced that they had a place in politics, and under Meriwether's leadership the WCTU endorsed woman suffrage.
Meriwether founded Tennessee's first woman suffrage organization in Memphis in 1889. The second appeared in Maryville in 1893; the third, in Nashville a year later. By 1897, the year of the Centennial Celebration in Nashville, ten towns had suffrage societies. Suffragists met at the Exposition's Woman's Building in May, heard speeches by suffrage leaders from Kentucky and Alabama, and formed a state association with Meriwether as president.
The state organization held its second meeting in Memphis in 1900, and Meriwether announced her resignation. She had been the driving force for suffrage since the mid-1880s, and her retirement was a severe blow to the struggling movement. The cause received another blow when the WCTU, under new leadership, renounced its earlier endorsement of votes for women. Prohibition had gained public support, but woman suffrage remained unpopular. The temperance union sacrificed women's rights for the sake of its larger goal. After 1900 suffrage activity ceased for several years.
The movement revived in 1906, when southern suffragists met in Memphis to form a regional association. During the conference, Memphis women organized their own suffrage league, the only one in the state for the next four years. In 1910 Lizzie Crozier French, who, like Lide Meriwether, had campaigned for suffrage and temperance since the 1880s, founded a suffrage society in Knoxville. The following year, women in Nashville, Chattanooga, and Morristown established local organizations. Over the next several years, suffrage clubs appeared in towns throughout the state.
In 1913 Sara Barnwell Elliott, president of the Tennessee Equal Suffrage Association, invited the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) to hold its next convention in Tennessee. NAWSA officers accepted the invitation and asked the state organization to decide which city would host the convention. A poll of local leagues produced a tie between Chattanooga and Nashville. At an acrimonious meeting the state executive committee selected Nashville, but the dispute led to a rift in the association, and the state convention in Knoxville during October 1914 split into two factions. Meeting on opposite ends of the same hall, one group elected Lizzie Crozier French president while the other chose Eleanore McCormack of Memphis. Each claimed to be the original organization, and each side blamed the other for the rupture. French's group obtained a charter as the Tennessee Equal Suffrage Association, Incorporated (TESA, Inc.). McCormack's faction also called itself the Tennessee Equal Suffrage Association (TESA) but did not incorporate.
Both associations affiliated with NAWSA, but TESA, Inc. welcomed the national convention to Nashville in November 1914. The meeting brought some of the most famous women in the nation to Tennessee, including reformer Jane Addams, founder of Hull House in Chicago, and NAWSA president Anna Howard Shaw, a physician and ordained minister. In addition to business meetings, suffragists also hosted such social events as a barbecue at the Hermitage that featured a race between an automobile with a female driver and an airplane with a female pilot. The convention attracted favorable publicity and increased support for suffrage in Tennessee.
The two state suffrage organizations offered separate proposals to enfranchise women. TESA, Inc., lobbied for an amendment to the state constitution. In May 1915 the general assembly adopted a joint resolution favoring the proposal, the first step in the amendment process. The resolution would have to pass again in 1917 and then be approved by a majority of voters before it could become law. Because the procedure for amending the constitution was so cumbersome, TESA joined with other groups, including the Manufacturers' Association, in calling for a convention to draft a new constitution that would, suffragists hoped, allow women to vote. The disagreement over strategy and TESA's alliance with the Manufacturers' Association, which opposed many reforms suffragists favored, widened the rift between the two state organizations.
A third statewide suffrage organization appeared in Tennessee in 1916 when Knoxville women formed a branch of the Congressional Union (later renamed the National Woman's Party). The union represented the militant wing of the suffrage movement and never gained a large following. State chair Sue Shelton White, however, attracted national attention in 1919 when she and other radical suffragists were arrested for burning President Woodrow Wilson in effigy during a demonstration in Washington, D.C.
Opponents of suffrage--antisuffragists or antis--also organized in 1916, forming a branch of the National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage. Virginia Vertrees of Nashville became the group's first president. When ill health forced her to resign, Josephine Anderson Pearson of Monteagle replaced her. Smaller than the suffrage organizations, the association nevertheless became a potent force because it received support from some of the most powerful political lobbies in Tennessee, including distillers, textile manufacturers, and railroad companies. Virginia Vertrees's husband John, a Nashville attorney who represented a major distillery, directed the association from behind the scenes.
Suffragists and antis faced off in 1917 when the general assembly considered a proposal to grant women the right to vote in local elections and for president. Suffragists lobbied hard for the bill; antis worked equally diligently against it. Suffragists won a major battle but lost the war when the House passed the measure but the Senate defeated it. Suffragists then resorted to another tactic. Before the session adjourned, both TESA and TESA, Inc., renewed the call for a constitutional convention. Antis mobilized a counterattack. Convinced that a majority of men opposed votes for women, John Vertrees and others maneuvered for a referendum on woman suffrage. They hoped that a decisive defeat at the polls would put the issue to rest. The legislature refused to approve the referendum, but lawmakers scheduled an election on a constitutional convention for July. On July 28, 1917, voters overwhelmingly rejected the proposal.
A few months earlier, in April 1917, the United States had entered World War I. Suffragists threw themselves into the war effort. They sold war bonds, organized Red Cross chapters, planted "Victory Gardens," and raised money to support European orphans and provide luxuries to American soldiers overseas. The war gave suffragists the opportunity to demonstrate their patriotism and to counter the argument that women should not be allowed to vote because they could not contribute to national defense.
In 1918 TESA and TESA, Inc., reunited, and the following year they once again lobbied the general assembly for the right to vote in municipal and presidential elections. This time they succeeded; both houses passed the bill in April. John Vertrees immediately filed a lawsuit challenging its constitutionality, but the Tennessee Supreme Court upheld the law. Tennessee suffragists had won their first major victory.
Two months after Tennessee granted women partial suffrage, Congress passed the Nineteenth Amendment. By the spring of 1920, thirty-five states had ratified it. If one more state approved it, women might be enfranchised in time to vote in the fall elections. When the Delaware legislature unexpectedly defeated the amendment in early June, suffragists pinned their hopes on Tennessee. They knew that they faced a difficult struggle. Although suffrage had gained popular support, strong opposition remained. Before debate on the amendment could begin, suffragists had to persuade the governor to call a special session of the legislature. Governor Albert H. Roberts had spoken against woman suffrage during his campaign two years earlier. He belonged to the antiprohibition wing of the Democratic Party, and his closest advisers opposed votes for women. He feared that women would vote against him because of his opposition to women's rights and prohibition and because of persistent rumors about his relationship with his highly paid female personal secretary. Roberts faced a tough race for reelection in 1920, and he knew that woman suffrage might bring about his downfall.
Suffragists and their allies mobilized. Sue Shelton White wrote the governor a letter on behalf of the National Woman's Party, and TESA sent a delegation of prominent women to meet with him. Both organizations enlisted pro-suffrage politicians and officeholders, including President Woodrow Wilson. Finally, the governor capitulated. On June 25, 1920, he announced that he would convene the general assembly in August. The governor's announcement set off one of the most heated political battles in Tennessee history. Suffragists and antisuffragists alike converged on Nashville; each side was determined to win the final battle.
Anne Dallas Dudley, Catherine Talty Kenny, and Abby Crawford Milton led the fight for the amendment. All three were leaders in TESA and in the newly formed League of Women Voters, and all were veterans of several legislative campaigns. They were skilled politicians, well versed in the realities of Tennessee politics. They received extensive support from the national suffrage organization. NAWSA President Carrie Chapman Catt coordinated the early stages of the campaign from New York. In mid-July she came to Nashville and remained until the fight was over. The National Woman's Party sent Sue Shelton White and South Carolinian Anita Pollitzer to lobby for the amendment.
The antis criticized the suffragists for inviting outsiders into Tennessee, but they called in their own reinforcements, including the wife of a former Louisiana governor and the presidents of the Southern Women's League for the Rejection of the Susan B. Anthony Amendment and the National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage. They also received assistance from three prominent southern women--Laura Clay of Kentucky and Jean and Kate Gordon of Louisiana--who favored votes for women but opposed the federal amendment because of their commitment to states' rights. Antisuffragists established their headquarters in the Hermitage Hotel and launched a massive publicity campaign.
Both sides recruited male allies--including newspaper editors, businessmen, and politicians--and courted legislators. Suffragists repeatedly accused antis of using underhanded tactics. Early in the summer, TESA polled members of the general assembly and identified lawmakers who promised to vote for the amendment but who might be susceptible to bribes. By August, every single legislator listed as susceptible had defected to the antis.
The special session convened on August 9. The Senate was solidly pro-suffrage and ratified the amendment four days later. The House delayed. Speaker of the House Seth Walker, who had originally supported the amendment, changed his mind on the eve of the session's opening and used his power to postpone the vote. The House debated the amendment on August 17 and scheduled the vote for the following day. The galleries were packed when Walker called the session to order on August 18. In the tense atmosphere, both sides knew the vote was too close to call. A motion to table the ratification resolution ended in a tie which represented a victory for suffragists, although the real test lay ahead.
The roll call began. Two votes for were followed by four votes against. The seventh name on the list was Harry Burn, a Republican from McMinn County. Suffrage polls listed him as undecided. He had voted with the antis on the motion to table, and suffragists knew that political leaders in his home district opposed woman suffrage. They did not know, however, that in his pocket he carried a letter from his widowed mother urging him to vote for ratification. When his name was called, Harry Burn voted yes.
Suffragists also received unexpected support from Banks Turner, an antisuffrage Democrat who at the last minute bowed to pressure from party leaders, and from Seth Walker, who at the end of the roll call switched his vote from no to aye. Walker's reversal did not reflect a change of heart. It was, instead, the first step in a parliamentary maneuver that would enable the House to reconsider the ratification resolution. But when Walker changed his vote, he inadvertently gave the amendment a constitutional majority; the final tally showed that fifty of the ninety-nine House members had voted yes. Tennessee had ratified the Nineteenth Amendment. During the next several days antisuffrage legislators attempted to rescind Tennessee's ratification, but their efforts failed. On August 26, 1920, Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby issued a proclamation declaring the Nineteenth Amendment ratified and part of the United States Constitution.
Tennessee suffragists were elated and proud of the pivotal role their state had played. "I shall never be as thrilled by the turn of any event as I was at that moment when the roll call that settled the citizenship of American women was heard," Abby Crawford Milton wrote. "Personally, I had rather have had a share in the battle for woman suffrage than any other world event." (1) The victory was especially sweet because of the deeply entrenched hostility that suffragists faced in the South; only three other southern states--Arkansas, Kentucky, and Texas--ratified the amendment in 1920. The suffrage movement in Tennessee that had begun with Elizabeth Avery Meriwether's lone crusade ended with a triumph that guaranteed millions of women the right to vote and changed the face of American politics forever.
Anastatia Sims, Georgia Southern University
(1) Abby Crawford Milton to Carrie Chapman Catt, 5 February 1921, box 1, folder 17, Carrie Chapman Catt Papers, Tennessee State Library and Archives, Nashville.
Suggested Reading(s): Kathleen C. Berkley, "Elizabeth Avery Meriwether, 'An Advocate for her Sex': Feminism and Conservatism in the Post-Civil War South," Tennessee Historical Quarterly 34 (1984): 390-407; Anastatia Sims, "'Powers That Pray' and 'Powers That Prey': Tennessee and the Fight for Woman Suffrage," Tennessee Historical Quarterly 50 (1991): 203-25; A. Elizabeth Taylor, The Woman Suffrage Movement in Tennessee (1957); Marjorie Spruill Wheeler, ed., Votes For Women! The Woman Suffrage Movement in Tennessee, the South, and the Nation (1995); Carol Lynn Yellin, "Countdown in Tennessee, 1920," American Heritage 30 (1978): 12-23, 27-35.