When I lived in Chattanooga, Tenn., I met a guy who grew up in the town of Niota (locals pronounce it nigh-OH-dah). It’s about an hour north of the Scenic City up Interstate 75. Nice guy, but I remember thinking, “There ain’t much in Niota.”
How could there be? The place is barely 2 square miles in size, and as of 2009, the U.S. Census Bureau pegged the town’s population at 811. On a good night, there are more people in Historic Sanford Memorial Stadium watching the Sanford River Rats than live in Niota, Tenn.
Yet despite it’s size, Niota’s most famous son would change U.S. history in the 20th century.
In August 1920, the Tennessee Legislature was called into special session to take up the issue of the day: ratifying the 19th Amendment that would grant women the right to vote. Thirty-five of the 48 states had already ratified the amendment. National attention was focused on Tennessee in anticipation that the Volunteer State would become the 36th state to support women’s suffrage and ensure adoption of the 19th Amendment.
Support for the amendment in Tennessee favored the suffragists, and the general consensus was it would pass. Governor Albert Roberts supported ratification, and 62 of the 99 members of the state House of Representatives had pledged their support.
But ratification was hardly assured. The liquor industry was dead set against the amendment in part because they blamed women for prohibition, which became effective in January 1920. Allowing women to vote could lead to other diabolical actions, they reasoned.
Working in conjunction with the railroad and manufacturer’s lobbyists, the whiskey moguls set up shop on the 8th floor of the Hermitage Hotel across the street from the state capitol. There they swayed legislators with plenty of “proof” that women’s suffrage was a bad idea.
When pro suffrage supporters complained about drunk legislators and demanded that prohibition laws be enforced, they were told, “In Tennessee, whiskey and legislation go hand in hand, especially when controversial questions are urged.”
The amendment won easy approval in the Tennessee Senate (25-4) but support in the House of Representatives had slipped away thanks to the liquor lobbyists. A simple count of the roses on the floor of the House showed the amendment would fail by 2 votes.
In Nashville during the summer of 1920, roses — not colored ribbons — were the badge you displayed to announce your allegiance. A yellow rose worn on the lapel indicated you favored a woman’s right to vote, while a red rose signaled you were fine with the status quo. It was a banner year for florists in Nashville as everyone in town was accessorizing with roses.
After weeks of debate, House Speaker Seth Walker called for the vote on Aug. 18 believing he had enough votes to table the measure, and in essence defeat it. But Rep. Banks Turner sided with the suffragists, producing a 48-48 deadlock (one representative had resigned and his seat had not be filled while two others were absent because of illness). Bewildered at the vote, Walker called a second vote to table the amendment, and this time he left the Speaker’s dais to personally lobby Turner as the vote was cast. Again, the outcome was 48-48.
Pro-suffrage legislators quickly made a motion to ratify the amendment. Another deadlock was expected but Rep. Harry T. Burn, a Republican from Niota and the youngest member of the legislature, shocked the house chamber, switched his allegiance and provided the crucial vote to ratify the 19th amendment. Legend has it that the 24-year-old Burn quickly left the house chambers and hid in the capitol attic to escape an angry mob of anti-suffragists.
The next day, Burn spoke from the floor of the House and said he believed he had a “moral and legal right” to ratify the amendment. He also revealed that beneath the red rose he wore on his lapel, the breast pocket of his jacket contained a letter from his mother, Phoebe Ensminger Burn, urging him “to be a good boy” and vote for ratification. “I knew that a mother’s advice is always safest for her boy to follow,” Burn said.
Burn did not follow every piece of advice his mother laid out in the letter. “I hope you see enough of politicians to know it is not one of the greatest things to be one. What say ye?” Mrs. Burn wrote in her famous letter. Despite the warning, her son went on to serve in various public offices throughout his adult life, including state senator and as a state planning commissioner. He also served as president of the First National Bank and Trust in Rockwood, Tenn.
Burn died in 1977 and was buried in Niota, which was recently featured on “Good Morning America” because all the city government offices were held by women. What better town for that to happen in than Niota, Tenn., home of the man who was instrumental in making it possible.