Local Group Pushes for Memorial Statue to Febb and Harry Burn

It’s interesting to ponder Knoxville’s stock of statues and memorials in the wake of recent controversies in other southern cities. It doesn’t take much of a survey to realize we’ve chosen quite a different path from those chosen by our sister cities. Though we have far fewer statues than some of the other cities, it’s startling how diverse and forward thinking our little collection is becoming.

Consider: Statues near and in downtown include an African American author (Alex Haley), a Russian musician (Sergei Rachmaninoff), an east Tennesseean who helped eradicate polio (William Sergeant), a Cherokee woman (Beloved Woman of Justice), a group of native Americans (Treaty of the Holston) and a woman who embodies strength in so many ways (Pat Summit). It’s not a bad group.

The two most iconic statues in the immediate downtown area, at least in terms of sheer volume of photographs taken by tourists and locals include The Oarsman (whose meaning may depend on your perspective – is he sinking or rising?) and the Tennessee Woman Suffrage Memorial. Each of them have a constant stream of ready admirers on any given day.

Harry Burn

Febb Burn

I met with Wanda Sobieski, director of the Suffrage Coalition who said the she started work on the Suffrage Memorial in 1975. It was finally a reality when it was unveiled on Equality Day, August 26, 2006. She related the arguments against suffrage that she found in her research, including the idea that passage would destroy the family, that women would not get married and, if they did, would leave men at home to raise the children.

The same group would like to add another sculpture to the mix: a statue to Febb and Harry Burn. To understand who they are, why they matter and why east Tennessee played such a pivotal role in women’s right to vote, you have to go back a bit. Here’s how the group explains the story:

The first public call for women to vote came in 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York. Not only unable to vote, women at that time had no right to their children (husbands could give them away), married women could not own property, they had no right to their own wages, and were generally, as far as the law was concerned, invisible.

After the Seneca Falls convention, decades of ceaseless effort went largely unrewarded until Congress finally passed the Susan B. Anthony Amendment in 1919. Ratification by thirty-six states was required to make it law. By the summer of 1920, thirty-five states had ratified, but unexpected losses in northern states made its future uncertain. The south was said to be “solidly anti-suffrage.”

In August of 1920 in a tumultuous special session of the legislature, Tennessee took up the question. Tempers flared and pressure from outsiders was almost unbearable. But in the end a twenty-four year old legislator from East Tennessee, Harry Burn, surprised the world with a last minute switch of his vote from “anti” to in favor of ratification. That set off a firestorm. The deciding factor for Harry Burn was a letter from his mother, Febb Burn, who urged him to be a “good boy” and vote for suffrage.

The story is actually quite dramatic. Only days were left in the effort to get the amendment ratified. Tennessee was the last chance for women to get the right to vote. Hopes were not high. On the day of the vote, the legislature was deadlocked until Harry changed his vote. Here’s more detail from the coalition:

Tennessee provided the final approval of the federal Constitutional Amendment that gave millions of women the right to vote. Ending a 72 year battle for the most fundamental right of democracy, Tennessee, a southern state, against all odds, did the right thing.

The ultimate outcome of the highly controversial matter rested on the shoulders of the youngest member of the legislature, twenty-four year old Harry Burn from East Tennessee. He instinctively understood the fairness of allowing all citizens to vote, but he had decided that if the amendment appeared to be failing, he would vote against it to please his constituency. If the amendment appeared to be winning, he would vote for suffrage. Faced with a tie vote he switched sides and broke the tie, thereby making woman suffrage a reality, and infuriating his colleagues.

When called before the House Chamber to answer for his vote, he explained, as he pulled a handwritten letter from his mother out of his coat pocket, that his mother had urged him to do the right thing, vote for suffrage. That letter, to him, was justification enough.

This amazing story about a young man, his mother, and a simple, honest letter deserves a special place in Knoxville, East Tennessee’s capital.

An appropriate memorial to Harry Burn and his mother, Febb Burn, will ensure that this story is not lost and serve as an inspiration to those who must make difficult decisions under the glare of strongly held opposing opinions.

Ms. Sobieski, a walking encyclopedia of information about the movement and its history, said that Harry had to escape the chamber after casting his vote and the national guard had to be called in. He hid for hours and ultimately had to defend his vote before the chamber. The vote did not end the matter, however, as a judge was set to order the papers certifying the vote to be prevented from being sent to Washington as required. A group of women delivered the papers there and had them certified before he could make his move.

It’s a story the group feels should be remembered and feel it is appropriately placed in Knoxville given the east Tennessee roots of the family. They’ve engaged sculptor Alan LeQuire, best known for his sculptures of Athena and Musica in Nashville. As you can see from the photos provided by the Suffrage Coalition, he’s begun the work. The city has agreed to allow placement of the work at the southeastern corner of Clinch and Market, next to the East Tennessee History Center. It will help continue a developing corridor of sorts of history sculptures running from Market Square through the courthouse lawn.

Money is being raised through tax deductible contributions and the group is about halfway to the goal of $400,000. Those donating, as you can see by the form replicated here, may have their name placed on one of 1500 bricks surrounding the statue with a donation of $100. A donation of $1000 to $5000 provides the chance to have one’s name engraved on the base of the statue. Miniatures of the statue are available for a $5000 contribution.

No automatic alt text available.

Support the group by “liking” their Facebook Page. If you’d like to give a donation you may do so by completing the above form (also found here). You can also make an online donation to the coalition here by selecting the Suffrage Coalition Fund from the drop-down menu. There is also a “donate” button on the Facebook Page.

Gallows Hill, The Carpenter’s Union Building, Jack Neely and More

Carpenter’s Union Building, 516 West Vine, Knoxville, October 2017

Sometimes a word or a phrase just stands on its own to incite or to evoke a reaction or a mood without further assistance. Gallows Hill. The reader immediately knows what happened there. The Knoxville reader may not readily know that the name references what we now generally call “Summit Hill.” “Summit” has such a nice, if generic, ring to it.

I stopped in on Jack Neely who told me that “Gallows Hill,” was simply a matter-of-fact name our predecessors a hundred-sixty-years ago would have used to designate the spot where Knoxville’s wayward citizens were removed from this world. Once considered far enough out of town to be decent for a civilized execution, it is located on the hill near Immaculate Conception Catholic Cathedral and when the name was changed to “Summit,” some locals derided the new name as a sort of silly modern softening.

Carpenter’s Union Building, Rear (and currently main) Entrance 516 West Vine, Knoxville, October 2017

Not many people today would know the building referenced as the “Carpenter’s Union Building,” though the name describes the function and evokes an era in American history when unions held great power. It sits atop what was once “Gallow’s Hall,” and may seem unremarkable to a passerby, should anyone pass by the building which originally faced Vine Avenue at its crest.

Built in 1946 as a Union Hall, with the requisite offices and a pretty spectacular (for the time) entertainment venue sitting on its top floor, the building would have been a point of pride for carpenters of the time. Now the few pedestrians climbing the hill give it scarcely a glance, though it contains some important businesses such as the offices of Adrienne Webster Accounting, Skyline Exhibitor Source, Nourish Knoxville and, most importantly for this story, the Knoxville History Project.

Carpenter’s Union Building, 516 West Vine, Knoxville, October 2017

Carpenter’s Union Building, 516 West Vine, Knoxville, October 2017

It was in the offices at the Knoxville History Project that I met with Jack Neely and Paul James who keep the flame of our local history alive through the non-profit located there. “Jack Neely,” is a name powerful enough for many of us to be shorthand for, “Knoxville history.” For decades, now, many of us have learned who we were, and are, as a city through his writings, which continue to be regularly published on the Knoxville History Center website. As I entered he was about that life work, focusing most recently on a history of local public works, the Old City and more.

[Continue reading]

Culture Hair Studio Opens on Gay Street

Liv Halcomb, owner of Culture Hair Studio has deep downtown roots for a person so young. Born in Knoxville and raised in Karns, she spent a large part of her childhood in the Old City because of her father's business, Moss Creek, still located on … [Continue reading]

Central Filling Station: Year-Round Food Truck Park Coming to Central

The couple has an appetite for all things urban. Alden and Scott Larrick are determined to bring a slice of other urban scenes they've enjoyed in their travels and various homes, to our center city. They think they've spotted something we're missing … [Continue reading]

Downtown Knoxville Ten Day Planner (10/15 – 10/24/2017)

If you want to be certain your event is included on this calendar, I’ll need your event two weeks in advance. The absolute best way to make sure I include your event is to make a FB event and invite me – two weeks in advance. My FB “events” are the … [Continue reading]