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#ThisIsAppalachia: Black Suffragettes

Out of the Shadows of a Hundred Years

Excerpt from “In The Shadows No Longer” in the Tennessee Tribune  February 2020 with permission of the author

Vivian Underwood Shipe | March 20, 2020

In Eastern Tennessee, legislator Harry T. Burn from McMinn County was a historic figure one hundred years ago. The 19th Amendment to U.S. Constitution in 1920 extended suffrage in voting rights for women. In a cliffhanger in the Tennessee legislature, Burn changed his position after his mother Febb E. Burn wrote a letter reminding him, “Don’t forget to be a good boy” and vote for Suffrage. His vote for the amendment passed it and made Tennessee the final state needed to amend the U.S. Constitution. The day of the vote, August 18 is now honored as Febb E. Burn day and 2020 is the 100th anniversary.

As dramatic as that vote was, it was the product of a movement had worked for years. Familiar images of the Suffragette movement are of white women marching in white dresses. The important role played by African-American women was largely overlooked, however. In this #ThisIsAppalachia, we welcome Dr. Vivian Shipe to lift up that part of this important history.

2020 has seen the importance of African-American voters, particularly Black women, in the current Presidential primaries. Black women are playing a decisive part despite repeated efforts since 1920 to suppress African-American voting rights.

Dr. Shipe has pointed out that African-American women from the beginning “used their influence, they used their money, they used their time, they suffered… for the rights for all women to be able to have that right to vote.” From “I Am” the Voice of the Voiceless

KNOXVILLE, TN — It is the 100 year anniversary of the 19th amendment. It is also the year of revelation.

As the country prepares for celebrations nationwide about the victory giving women the right to vote; there is another preparation going on… the movement across the nation to finally acknowledge that African American women were part of that struggle too.

Initially the races fought side by side to ensure all had the right to vote. After the 15th amendment was passed giving all men the right; there was an intentional movement to exclude the African American women from the fight and even from the pages of history.

Black women would not be deterred. The right to vote for them was an opportunity to empower the race. They would continue to fight for the right, refusing to be pushed into the shadows.

African American women would march, strategize, work with white groups where they could, use their power and influence thru their clubs or position until the right to vote was won in 1920

It is estimated that over a million African American women were Suffragist thru out the United States leading up to the victory in the summer of 1920.

It is noteworthy of celebration.  Vivian Shipe

Feature photo: State Vice President of the Tennessee Education Association, Tanya Coats, Vivian Shipe and Knox County Commissioner Evelyn Gill. Wearing black to remind the world that African American women were Suffragist too. Statue in Knoxville of Harry Burn and mother Phoebe Ensminger Burn. “Miss Febb” (see article).

More on the story: Tennessee State Museum, opening March 27, 2020, Nashville, Ratified! Tennessee Women and the Right to Vote. Video online.

African American Women Leaders in the Suffrage Movement, Turning Point Suffragist Memorial, Suffragistmemorial.org corporate control. The work and the inspiration continues.