Equality Trailblazers Monument in Downtown Memphis

Equality Trailblazers Monument: “A Gift to the City”

This article originally appeared in Volume I, Issue II of StoryBoard Memphis Quarterly in March 2022.

Memphis’s newest monument is a testament to the years suffragists fought to win the right to vote, as well as their ongoing impact. The story of uncovering Tennessee’s suffragists’ history, documenting their struggles, and educating people about their legacies has also taken decades to accomplish. StoryBoard’s Caroline Carrico interviewed Paula Casey, chair of the Memphis Suffrage Monument committee, about Tennessee’s role in the fight for the Nineteenth Amendment, the process of uncovering and memorializing this history throughout the state, and the new Equality Trailblazers monument located on the riverside of the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law. The monument will be on the Memphis Heritage Trail, the Tennessee Women’s Suffrage Heritage Trail, and the National Votes for Women Trail. 

Suffrage Movement

The women’s suffrage movement stretched over 72 years, from the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, where Elizabeth Cady Staton proposed female voting rights, to the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. After passing in the U.S. House of Representatives on May 21, 1919, and the Senate on June 4, 1919, the Nineteenth Amendment went to the states. Three quarters had to ratify it for it to become part of the Constitution. In the end, 35 states ratified, nine states rejected, and three states did not consider it. 

Paula: Women won the right to vote. Nobody gave them anything; it wasn’t bestowed by some benevolent entity. It was the greatest nonviolent struggle in the history of our country in order for women to be included in the United States Constitution. They believed in democracy and the rule of law. That was the basis for this entire movement, because women believed that they should have the right to participate in their government. 

The last remaining state that could vote for ratification was Tennessee, a state with no history of progressivism but with an extremely well-organized suffrage movement. Our 95 counties had suffragists, some secret, some very vocal. Carol Lynn Yellin, my friend and mentor, uncovered women who surreptitiously supported suffrage. They formed clubs like sewing circles and the Ossoli Circle in Knoxville. She said these women were the greatest politicians the world has ever known because they won the right to vote without having it. 

Some British women embraced the originally derogatory term suffragette, but American women saw the term as offensive and called themselves suffragists. Suffragists were the first ones to picket the White House for a political cause, and they were the first lobbyists because they kept track of how each legislator said  he was going to vote. 

These women brought political imagery into focus. The suffragists had the yellow rose, which they used to represent the dawn of a new day. The anti-suffragists wore red blooms. Legislators wore a red or yellow rose on their lapel to show their opinion. Those that wanted to straddle the fence wore talisman roses, yellow roses with red stripes. 

With attention focused on the Tennessee legislature, Joe Hanover, Banks Turner, and Harry Burns became heroes for suffragists around the country.

Paula: Joe Hanover was an immigrant from Poland. His family settled in Memphis, and they revered the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. He questioned, “Why can’t mother vote?” and ran for the state legislature specifically to support women’s suffrage. Carrie Chapman Catt, national suffrage leader and protégé of Susan B. Anthony, was impressed with him and asked him to be the floor leader. Mr. Joe kept pro-suffrage folks together, despite the onslaught of the anti-suffrage opposition. He knew the morning of August 18, 1920, that he was two votes short of ratification.

One vote came from Representative Banks Turner. Anecdotally, Tennessee Governor Albert Roberts called Turner to his office while he was on the phone with Ohio’s Governor James Cox, the Democratic Presidential nominee. Governor Cox was beseeching Governor Roberts to get the Nineteenth Amendment ratified so women could vote in the 1920 presidential election.

Governor Roberts said something to the effect of, “I’m sitting here looking at the man who can make this happen.” Turner had been an anti, but when they called the vote on the motion to table the amendment, he surprisingly voted against it. They deadlocked at 48/48, which kept the amendment alive. If he had voted to table, it would have stopped. It would not have gone forward in Tennessee. They did a second vote, and Turner held firm. Mr. Joe was pleasantly surprised, but he didn’t know where this other vote was going to come from. 

Unbeknownst to anyone, Representative Harry Burns received a letter from his mother. It read, “Dear Son…Hurrah and vote for suffrage and don’t keep them in doubt…I’ve been waiting to see where you stood and have not seen anything yet…Don’t forget to be a good boy and help Mrs. “Thomas Catt” with her “Rats”…With lots of love, Mama.”

He had that letter in his coat when he voted for ratification. Pandemonium broke out because people realized that his vote was the one that was going to make the difference. Joe Hanover knew that they had it. Speaker of the House Seth Walker did the parliamentary maneuver of switching his vote to the prevailing side so that he could bring it up for reconsideration, but that actually made it pass with a 50 vote constitutional majority.

History was made. Tennessee was the last state that could possibly ratify, and we did. Joe Hanover was the hero. He came back to Memphis, practiced law, and never ran for office again. 

Memorializing Suffrage in Tennessee

For decades, Tennessee’s role in the suffrage movement was not commemorated. For several decades, Paula Casey has been at the forefront of memorialization efforts across the state.

Paula: Carol Lynn believed this history must be preserved, which is why she and Dr. Janann Sherman wrote The Perfect 36: Tennessee Delivers Woman Suffrage. After Carol Lynn passed away, Dr. Sherman and I continued the work.

Back in 1996, we talked with then-state senator Steve Cohen after he and I put together a statewide commission for the 75th suffrage anniversary. He taught us about the importance of public art, and he wanted something in the state capitol. He brought in the Tennessee Arts Commission, and we had a blind competition. I was on the committee that selected Alan LeQuire, a world renowned sculptor, brilliant artist, and a great person, to create the bas-relief sculpture inside the state capitol. 

After we unveiled that sculpture, Wanda Sobieski in Knoxville commissioned Alan to do a sculpture there that represented the state’s three grand divisions. I selected Elizabeth Avery Meriwether to represent West Tennessee because she was Tennessee’s first known suffragist. She tried to cast a vote in 1873 in Memphis. They gave her a ballot, but she never knew if it was counted. 

In 2010, my friend Alma Sanford in Nashville wanted something outside the state capitol. She put together a state board and asked me to be on it. We met at Alan’s studio in 2011, had our first fundraiser, and started thinking about what kind of sculpture we wanted to have. They asked me to be president, which meant “will you raise the money?” and I said yes. The Nashville monument was $900,000, and we raised all the money from private funds. We wanted it near the capitol, but we had a bunch of trouble. Mayor Karl Dean, followed by all the subsequent Metro Nashville mayors, was excited to have it in Centennial Park.

I call them “my girls in Centennial Park,” and I selected the five women who needed to be there. One woman I chose was Frankie Pierce, a major Black suffragist. She and Dr. Mattie Coleman of Nashville, who graduated from Meharry Medical College, registered over 2,500 Black women in Nashville’s 1919 municipal elections.

After finishing Nashville, Jacque Hilman wanted a monument in Jackson. I was the fiscal agent for the group that put a bust of Sue Shelton White, the only Tennessee woman jailed fighting for suffrage, in front of Jackson City Hall.

In 2012, I was working at then-city councilor Jim Strickland’s law office when he told me he wanted a Memphis suffrage monument. I was working on the Nashville monument, but it had never occurred to me to do one in Memphis.

Equality Trailblazers Monument in Downtown Memphis

The Memphis Monument

The Memphis monument has been in process since December 2016 and has gone through four designs and three locations. Nashville-based sculptor Alan LeQuire designed the monument and fabricated the busts. Many of the memorialized individuals are not recognized anywhere else.

Paula: On November 2, 2018, I sent an email to Jennifer Oswalt of the Downtown Memphis Commission, because it looked like the park location we wanted wasn’t going to happen. 

She asked me if I had looked at the law school. I had walked in front of the building, but I hadn’t come to the riverside. I immediately texted Mayor Strickland to ask who owned this property. The city owns it, but the law school has jurisdiction. The then-interim, now permanent, dean agreed to meet me. I gave her a copy of The Perfect 36, and I told her what we were planning. She was totally on board. 

Everybody fell in love with the site and then it became an engineering question. How were we going to put a monument here? One of the earlier designs had too much glass, and we were worried about the wind. 

Alan LeQuire’s final design features steel women marching from 1918 to 2018, which includes the 2017 Women’s March. He wanted mounted glass panels with lights coming up through the bases. Each has a photovoltaic sensor, so when it’s overcast, or at dusk, the lights come on and shine up through the glass panels. Andre LeQuire, the project manager, worked on the overhead lights, and each one shines down on a bust. 

The monument is a gift to the City. When the City Council accepts it, then they will assume responsibility for the maintenance, and which is where the Urban Arts Commission comes in. 

The Equality Trailblazers

The committee chose 13 individuals–12 women and one man–to be represented on the memorial. Each individual has a glass panel with an engraved image, a quote, and a biography. Alan LeQuire selected six of the individuals–Charl Ormond Williams, Rep. Joe Hanover, Mary Church Terrell, Marion Griffin, Rep. Lois DeBerry and Ida B. Wellsto sculpt. 

Lide Smith Meriwether was a major national figure. She was Elizabeth Avery Meriwether’s sister-in-law and started Memphis’s Equal Rights Association in 1889. She also served as president of the Tennessee Equal Rights Association from 1897 until 1900.

Lulu Colyar Reese was a spitfire and considered aristocratic and flamboyant. She was socially prominent and born in Middle Tennessee. She became involved in politics and the Ladies Hermitage Association. She had a smoking salon at the Hermitage Hotel for women staying there during the ratification vote.

If you’re going to talk about equality in Memphis, you have to acknowledge Ida B. Wells. In addition to being a journalist and civil rights activist, she founded the Alpha Suffrage Club and integrated the 1913 National American Woman Suffrage Association’s parade in Washington, D.C., when she marched with the Illinois delegation instead of at the rear of the procession. Michelle Duster, one of Ida B. Wells’s great-granddaughters, and her brothers wrote her bio.

Mary Church Terrell was another very significant Memphian who fought for both gender and racial equality. She was the first president of the National Association of Colored Women and one of the founders of the NAACP. She picketed the White House with the National Women’s Party.

Alma Law was the first woman to serve on the Shelby County Quarterly Court before it became the County Board of Commissioners.

Any woman who practices law in Tennessee knows about Marion Griffin. She was turned down to practice law by two judges, and she persuaded the state legislature to change the law. She was a member of The League of Women Voters and a member of AAUW. 

Charl Ormond Williams grew up in Arlington, Tennessee. She was not directly involved in the suffrage movement leading up to ratification, but she was a nationally recognized educator. Governor Roberts was so impressed with her ability to bring factions together that he asked her to come and help push the Nineteenth Amendment over. 

Charl Ormand Williams bust at Equality Trailblazers Monument

We felt we had an opportunity to tell the story of what happened with the united Shelby County delegation since Charl Ormond Williams and Joe Hanover were really the ones that brought the Nineteenth Amendment across the finish line. If Mr. Joe hadn’t been the floor leader and kept those pro-suffrage votes together, I don’t know that it would have passed in Tennessee. The amendment might not even have come up for consideration. 

For this monument we not only wanted to honor the suffragists, but also those women whose careers were made possible because of the suffragist victory. 

As far as we know, Frances Grant Loring was the only white woman to march with Dr. King during the sanitation strike. She helped found MIFA and the Tennessee Lawyers Association for Women. She was dedicated to equal rights and justice under law. 

Maxine Smith served as Executive Director of the Memphis NAACP for over 40 years and registered large numbers of women to vote.

Minerva Johnican was the first Black female County Commissioner, and she ran for mayor in 1987. In 1990, she became the first woman to serve as Shelby County Criminal Court Clerk.

Happy Jones was a major philanthropist and the reason we have The Perfect 36 book. She understood her privilege, yet she never backed down from a fight. She fought for equality all of her life and helped avert a second sanitation workers’ strike.

Lois de Berry had national and international recognition. She was the first woman to serve as Speaker Pro Tempore of the Tennessee House of Representatives. She was able to bring people together, but she also stood strong for what she believed in. 

Why monuments matter

The Monuments Project’s National Monument Audit, released in September 2021, found that an overwhelming majority of individuals represented on America’s monuments are white and male. Of the top 50 historical figures, only three are women. Additionally, the monuments most commonly represent war and conquest, which represents only part of our country’s history. In contrast, the Trailblazers Equality Monument presents a more complete history in a highly visible public space. 

Paula: When you go into a city or any town, or anywhere where there’s any kind of statuary and look at what is depicted, that tells you what they think is important and who matters in our history. In Tennessee, we had strong suffrage leaders. We had dedicated, passionate activists who deserve to be remembered. That’s what happens with public art. Monuments will be here after we’re gone. That’s what makes this so significant. We are going to tell this story for future generations to know that nonviolent revolution and what these people did matters. Public art is forever. 

Caroline Mitchell Carrico is a native Memphian and, as a historian by training, she enjoys researching the city’s past and pulling it into the present. When she isn’t reading and writing, she can often be found cheering on her kids’ soccer teams.

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