NASHVILLE, TN — In 1920, Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the 19th Amendment, giving all American women the right to vote thanks to countless Tennessee women who fought and battled to secure ratification.
To memorialize this moment in American history, the nonprofit Tennessee Woman Suffrage Monument consisting of President Yvonne Wood, and members Alma Sanford, Jacque Hillman, Janis Sontany, Linda Knight, Paula Casey, Patricia Pierce and Rosetta Miller Perry, commissioned renowned Nashville sculptor Alan LeQuire, to create a sculpture to commemorate the importance of Tennessee’s pivotal role in granting women the right to vote.
The sculpture honors five of the women involved in that historical moment in Nashville: Carrie Chapman Catt, Anne Dallas Dudley, Abby Crawford Milton, Sue Shelton White, and J. Frankie Pierce. The story behind the statue and the women it memorializes is essential to understanding where we are today.
Conscience of the Nashville Community
Representing Black Nashvillians J. Frankie Pierce was born in Nashville toward the end of the Civil War, and likely born a slave. She was a well known community leader at First Baptist Church Capitol Hill and also the Black and Suffrage community of Nashville. J. Frankie Pierce, did not lose sight of what the fight was about even though there were many scandalous activities going on in Nashville that summer. Why was the vote so important? Her answer was simple: ‘the moral uplift of the community.” These were the words she offered when in the spring of 1920, she was asked, “What will the Negro women do with the vote?” She said, “We will stand by the white women. . . . We are asking only one thing–a square deal. . . . We want recognition in all forms of this government. We want a state vocational school and a child welfare department of the state, and more room in state schools.”
Among Pierce’s many crusades, such as advocating for restroom facilities for black women in downtown department stores, her lifelong commitment was to establish a vocational school for at-risk African-American girls. With segregation legal in the South, such institutions existed only for white girls. Black girls coming out of juvenile court were instead sent to adult prisons.
Pierce understood what winning the vote meant. She leveraged the suffrage victory, and the creation of a statewide vocational school for girls was added to the legislative agenda for the newly named Tennessee League of Women Voters, led by Abby Crawford Milton. Only eight months after Tennessee ratified the 19th Amendment, the General Assembly passed a bill creating the Tennessee Vocational School for Colored Girls. The school opened two and a half years later, with Pierce as the first superintendent.
Despite this victory, the story of Pierce, like that of so many African-American women suffragists, has been lost to time and is often absent in the great retelling of the movement. It’s important to remember that the passage of the 19th Amendment was not a universal victory for all women. Segregation and Jim Crow laws still kept many black women from voting. It would take another long series of battles, fought both behind the scenes and in the streets and led prominently by women before African-American women realized full suffrage through the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The Tennessee Suffrage Monument memorializes these five unflagging women, as well as the countless others who fought and won the right to vote. The magnificent statue says it all. From the front, all five seem fiercely independent as individual protestors. Yet the beauty of the piece, like the beauty of the battle that summer, is that from behind, the five women are actually one entity, connected in their struggle through open arms and holding hands.