Stories of Knoxville voter history celebrate 100 years of women’s suffrage

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James and Ethel Beck, who founded The Beck Cultural Center, reportedly voted for different political parties.

This was supposed to be a celebratory year for the Woman Suffrage Coalition in Knoxville. It’s the suffrage centennial, after all. 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment that protects a woman’s right to vote. Leaders had two musicals planned. Both have been postponed to 2021 because of the pandemic.

“It’s the night before the vote in 1920. Four young girls appear on stage to sing to the legislators,” a message appears at the start of a Vimeo video posted two days before the election. It’s a music video giving a glimpse into what would have been Act II Scene III of “A Vote of Her Own,” by Candace Corrigan. That’s the name of the musical that would have been put on for the centennial celebration.

The lyrics pop up on the screen reading, “I’m just a girl who won’t always be young. As I face the world who will I become? Will I have the right to express my own voice? This law you are passing determines my choice.”

The law did pass, but narrowly. Wanda Sobieski is the founder of the Woman Suffrage Coalition. She said Tennessee was the final necessary state to get the vote. A young legislator, 24-year-old Henry Burn, broke the tie.

“He did it because his mother wrote him a letter asking him to be a good boy and vote for suffrage,” Sobieski said.

She said he had been quietly anti-suffrage, but received the letter from his mother the day of the vote. He changed his mind and, therefor, changed history.

Two voting populations both candidates have their eyes on this election day are women and black voters. While the 19th amendment covers that, the 15th amendment protects all races and that was ratified in 1870.

The President of the Beck Cultural Exchange Center in Knoxville recognized the importance of this day. She recalled a story that had been shared over the years from a local Knoxville newspaper in 1919. It talked about an elderly black woman who couldn’t see well. According to the report, the woman asked if her daughter could fill out the ballot on her behalf, but that request was denied. The article referenced the polling location being backed up as election officials argued the technical point.

“Our ancestors and those who came before us understood how important that was and 100 years ago when we were talking about women’s suffrage, for example, in Knoxville, women would go to the polls to vote for the first time in 1919, which is actually a year before the suffrage in 1920,” Rev. Renee Kesler explained. “What’s interesting about that was a story about an old colored woman and how she was described and how she was almost disenfranchised by oppression without being able to cast her ballot.”

Reverend Kesler also recalled two important women in Knoxville history. The first black woman to register to vote was Ethel Downer. The first black woman to vote was Agnes Sadler.

“There are people who really fought and who died for that right and, so I believe it’s important. We do stand on their shoulders, no doubt, but I still think we honor them when we exercise that right, which is so very important, so we remember the past,” Rev. Kesler said. “We look now at today and into our future and how do we continue on to understand the importance of voting and particularly for people who have been disenfranchised?”

When President Barack Obama ran for office in 2012, the nation saw record black voter turnout. Rev. Kesler hopes that trend continues.

Though you may think political views would be a dating deal breaker many married couples vote differently. An ABC News and Washington Post poll showed there was a significant gender gap when it came to which candidate earned which vote. President Donald Trump had a lead of 55 percent to 42 percent among male likely voters, while Former Vice President Joe Biden had a 65 percent to 34 percent lead among female likely voters. Sobieski said she expects record turnout for women in the 2020 presidential election.

“They’re finding their own voice and I think that’s a wonderful thing. In democracy that’s fabulous. For so long, after the suffrage amendment past, and women got the right to vote, the suffragists were disappointed that a lot of women still didn’t participate. Sometimes they were excluded by poll taxes and they had no money of their own, so if their husband didn’t want to give them money to vote then they didn’t get to vote,” Sobieski explained.

Reverend Kesler also shared some perspective on this. She said Mr. and Mrs. Beck, the founders of the center, had opposing political views. She recalled stories of the couple discussing this with humor when Ethel first got the right to vote alongside her husband, James.

James and Ethel Beck, who founder The Beck Cultural Center, reportedly voted for opposite parties.

“Mr. Beck was a staunch republican. Mrs. Beck was a staunch democrat and, so she would often say things to him like ‘well, now I’m able to vote.’ So women would go out and vote and he says, ‘well, I’m still going to vote republican,’ and she said, ‘that’s fine, but I’m going to cancel your vote,’” Rev. Kesler explained.

She expects women to begin swaying their partners’ votes. Much like Burn’s mother influened his vote for suffrage, Rev. Kesler said women may be changing their spouse’s votes in the future.

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