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Historic figures from women's suffrage movement stop by Johnson City

David Floyd • Updated Oct 4, 2019 at 10:07 AM

It took 144 years after the passage of the United States Constitution for women to earn the right to vote in America.

And even then, it took longer for women of color to have that right secured.

“We don’t take this lightly,” said Johnson City Mayor Jenny Brock during a Johnson City Commission meeting Thursday at City Hall. “We need to teach our children, both boys and girls, the significance of this moment.”

The doors of time opened for a split second on Thursday, allowing Brock and other locals to “meet” several of the historical figures who were central to the women’s suffrage movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Actors portraying Carrie Chapman Catt, dubbed the “the chief” of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, joined Brock in front of the commission chamber’s dais with Sue Shelton White, who represented Alice Paul’s National Woman’s Party in Nashville, and Frankie Pierce, a black suffragist who fought to ensure that women of color weren’t forgotten in the movement.

“Tennessee, as you probably know Mayor Brock, is the last chance for us to gain the right to vote for women,” declared Catt, who was portrayed by Linda Good. “We’ve had 35 other states ratify the 19th Amendment and we’ve gotten rejections from others.”

The performers put on a brief skit before Brock read a proclamation declaring Aug. 18, 2019, through Aug. 18, 2020, the Women’s Suffrage Centennial Celebration, which Johnson City will honor with a series of events starting with a kickoff in January.

Tennessee was the 36th and final state needed to officially ratify the 19th Amendment, with State Rep. Harry Burn famously casting the deciding vote needed to approve the amendment.

Burn, who the historical record indicates was encouraged to vote for the amendment by his mother, Febb, was also present in the commission chambers on Thursday.

“Unlike you Mayor Brock, I’m up for reelection this fall in McMinn County where most of my constituents are against suffrage,” he said, “and so far I’ve voted against it with my fellow party members. But suddenly I find this letter in my pocket from my mother.”

Burn pulled a folded up piece of paper from his pocket.

“Hurrah and vote for suffrage,” the letter read. “Don’t keep them in doubt. Be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt put the ‘rat’ in ratification.”

The group organizing the local events, the Women’s Suffrage Centennial Celebration Coalition of Johnson City, is finalizing a series of activities that will occur throughout the year leading up to Aug. 18, the day that Tennessee approved the amendment.

Organizers are planning a series educational programs, a fundraising event in the spring with music, a reading of a musical in May about Febb Burn, and a viewing of the film “Ironed Jaw Angels.” The coalition will also hold a parade on Aug. 15 running from King Commons to the amphitheater in Founders Park, which will act as an opportunity for participants to reenact the 1913 women’s suffrage march through Washington, D.C.

Joy Fulkerson, who portrayed Frankie Pierce on Thursday and is a member of the coalition, encourages members of the community to reach out to the group if they want to participate in the celebration.

“We hope that this kind of things draws interest and folks want to learn more and be engaged and involved,” she said.

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to clarify that Harry Burn was a state representative when Tennessee voted on ratification.

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