A New Monument in Tennessee Highlights Black Women in the Suffrage Movement

Michelle Duster SAVE THIS
Artist Alan LeQuire sculpting the bust of Ida B. Wells (courtesy of the author).

On the cusp of the 19th Amendment’s centennial, the trailblazers who paved the way for today’s voters and politicians are starting to get the recognition they deserve. The state of Tennessee is leading the way with the Tennessee Woman Suffrage Heritage Trail, which includes markers, monuments, and gravesites that were important in the state’s suffrage movement. One monument was created in Knoxville in 2006 that depicts three suffragists: Lizzie Crozier French of Knoxville, Anne Dallas Dudley of Nashville, and Elizabeth Avery Meriwether of Memphis. A decade later, Nashville installed another depicting five suffragists, including an African American, J. Frankie Pierce. Now, there will be one in Memphis. Nashville sculptor Alan LeQuire designed all three monuments.

The latest monument will consist of steel, bronze busts, and LED lighting with two glass walls–each 28 feet wide, 8 feet high, with front and back-facing panels. It will feature a total of 13 racially diverse people, including suffrage champion Lide Smith Meriwether; anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells; civil and women’s rights advocate Mary Church Terrell; long-time local NAACP leader Maxine Smith; Tennessee legislator Lois DeBerry; Minerva Johnican, the first Black woman elected to the Shelby County Commission; and Joseph Hanover, the Memphis state representative who ensured that the suffrage vote stayed alive in the General Assembly in 1920. All 13 individuals will have their photos and bios lasered into the glass. Six busts, which LeQuire sculpted, will face the Mississippi River.

The driving force behind all three monuments is Paula Casey, co-founder of the Tennessee Woman Suffrage Heritage Trail. Everyone included on the monument advocated for equality.

“These were ordinary people who did extraordinary things,” Casey told The North Star. “They believed in democracy and the rule of law. They deserve to be remembered.”

Although it is impossible to tell a complete 70-plus year history within a stationary piece of art, it acknowledges that African American women were part of the struggle.

The idea for the monument in Memphis was a continuum of what had been done in the other cities. Casey said current Mayor Jim Strickland requested one for Memphis in 2012 while he was still on the city council and she was working on the suffrage monument in Nashville. The process started in 2013 and has endured the challenging twists and turns of raising $700,000, plus finding a location that everyone could agree on.

The “Equality Trailblazers/Woman Suffrage” monument will be located at the University of Memphis Law School, visible from the river, the I-40 bridge, and Riverside Drive. “The impact this will have on the City of Memphis is increased awareness of the important role Memphis/Shelby County played in women winning the right to vote,” Casey added. “It will be important for heritage tourism since 2020 is the national centennial of the 19th Amendment’s ratification. This monument also honors those who aren’t honored anywhere else.”

A preview of the Woman Suffrage Heritage Trail (courtesy of artist Alan LeQuire).

Given the country’s current political climate as well as Memphis’s tempestuous mayoral race, this monument can serve as an educational and inspirational piece for all. It will be installed in time to mark the 2020 centennial of the 19th Amendment that granted women the right to vote. Tennessee has its unique place in history because it was the final state to ratify the bill on August 18, 1920 by a one-vote margin. Two days later it became law. And it is making history again by creating such an extensive homage to the women who paved the way for women to exercise full citizenship by voting. Not only will that be a pivotal year regarding the right to vote, but it will also be a presidential election year.

There are currently three Democratic women in the primary running for president of the United States. There are 127 women in Congress making up almost 24 percent of the body. Three of the nine Supreme Court justices are women. Women are the mayors of several major citiesincluding Chicago, Atlanta, Washington, DC, and San Francisco. Women are governors of New Mexico, Alabama, and seven other states. This might seem normal and no big deal for some women who have grown up always having the right to vote and participate in politics, but women had to fight for over 70 years in order to even vote–let alone run for office.

The struggle for women’s suffrage was long, difficult, and complex. Suffragists did not always agree on strategy. There were regional differences. Racism within the movement caused Black women to organize and operate separately from white women. Black women formed their own suffrage groups and campaigned with a slightly different focus. But eventually, through hard work, focus, and determination the long, successful fight gave women a political voice, even though it happened unevenly and women continue to face political resistance.

As women forge ahead and gain ground within the political arena, this country is also making progress when it comes to representation of women in monument form. Currently, women make up 51 percent of the population. However, less than 10 percent of the monuments and statues in the country honor women. With initiatives and projects like what is happening in Tennessee, the country will slowly start to build representational equity to women in public spaces. One monument, one marker, and one plaque at a time.

 


About the Author

Michelle Duster is an award-winning author, speaker, and educator. Her professional background includes two decades of writing in advertising and marketing communications. Since 2008 she has written, edited and contributed to nine books and dozens of articles. She is active with several committees to develop city, state, and national public history projects that focus on the contributions African Americans and women made to the United States, including her paternal great-grandmother, civil rights icon Ida B. Wells.

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