History of Tennessee/Modern Tennessee (1901-1941)

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Women's Suffrage Movement In Tennessee[edit]

The early 1900s was an era that saw many progressive reforms take root in Tennessee. One of the most notable reform movements that was the women suffrage movement of the early twentieth century.

Origins of the Suffrage Movement in Tennessee[edit]

The Women’s Suffrage Movement began in the United States prior to the Civil War, however it did not become prominent in Tennessee until many years later. An early appeal on behalf of the Women’s Suffragist Movement was made by Mrs. Napoleon Cromwell of Mississippi, at an address she made at the state democratic convention in 1876 in Nashville. Traditionally, women in Tennessee had been seen as “non-persons”, according to legal historian Agnes Thornton Bird. Thus, the Women’s Suffrage Movement had a slow beginning, with no equal suffrage societies forming within Tennessee until several years after Mrs. Cromwell’s speech.

In 1889, an equal suffrage society was founded in Memphis, and a second society started in Maryville in 1893. The end of the 1800s saw ten equal suffrage leagues forming in the state of Tennessee. A state convention for women suffragists was held in Nashville in 1897, and a second one was held in Memphis in April 1900. Following these conventions, support for the suffrage movement in Tennessee subsided.

Resurgence of the movement[edit]

In December 1906, an equal suffrage convention was held in Memphis. It was at this convention that the drive for women suffrage was reignited within Tennessee. Following the convention, an Equal Suffrage Association was formed in Memphis, and it would remain the only suffrage organization in Tennessee for the next four years. In 1910, a second Equal Suffrage League was organized in Knoxville, Tennessee, followed by leagues beginning in Nashville, Morristown and Chattanooga in 1911. The creation of these leagues symbolized the reemergence of the women’s suffrage movement. Rapid progress was made for the women’s suffrage movement after 1911 in Tennessee. Participation increased, with the number of leagues reaching more than seventy-five, with leagues having membership numbers into the hundreds, and for some, even into the thousands. To raise awareness and support for their cause, societies staged May Day demonstrations, which included a parade, followed by a rally consisting of speeches and resolutions. In addition to these demonstrations, other methods deployed by the societies included debates, social functions, and booths at fairs.

However, there was much opposition to the women’s suffrage movement within Tennessee. The Tennessee anti-suffrage organization was established, and though the organizations activities were limited, many individuals within the public shared their desertification with the woman’s movement. For example, John J. Vertrees, a Nashville lawyer, published a pamphlet expressing his views on the women’s movement. He wrote in his pamphlet that the majority of citizens within Tennessee, both men and women, did not want women to have the right to vote, and furthermore, it did not matter if woman wanted the right to vote, for it was more about what they ought to have than what they wanted. Despite harsh opposition, the women’s suffrage movement carried on in Tennessee.

Governmental Changes[edit]

The enfranchisement of women did not reach a governmental level in Tennessee until 1915. The general assembly made a joint resolution for a constitutional amendment conferring suffrage, however in order for the resolution to take effect, it had to pass in the 1917 legislature by a two-thirds majority, and then, had to withstand a state referendum. The difficulty of this process led suffragists to alter their strategy, opting to attempt to gain the right to vote in municipal elections and for presidential electors. This limited enfranchisement was more easily attainable because the legislature had the authority to grant this. In 1917, the bill passed house approved the bill, however senate did not approve it. In 1919, it reappeared in government and was passed on April 14th, 1919.

Tennessee Governor Albert H. Roberts (1868–1946) certifying the state's ratification of the 19th Amendment in August 1920. Memphis suffragist Charl Williams stands watching.

On June 4th, 1919, the federal women's suffrage amendment was submitted to the state legislature. However, before this amendment could become part of the United States Constitution, it had to receive approval in the state legislatures of thirty-six of the forty-eight states. By March 1920, thirty-five states had ratified the amendment. Many urged Tennessee Governor Albert H. Roberts to call a special session of the legislature to make Tennessee the thirty sixth state to ratify the amendment and thus, make it part of the United States Constitution. In August of 1920, Governor Roberts called a special session of the legislature that convened on August 9th, 1920. Following debate in the house and senate, the ratification passed on the Anthony Amendment, which was named after the writer of the amendment. On August 24th, 1920, Governor Roberts signed the certificate of ratification and mailed it to Washington. On August 26th, the Nineteenth amendment, giving women the right to vote, became part of the United States constitution, due in part, to Tennessee ratifying the legislation.

The 1918 Nashville Railway Disaster[edit]

On July 9th, 1918, just outside of Nashville, two passenger trains collided head-on resulting in America’s largest rail disaster ever. The westbound No. 4 train, having just picked up passengers in Nashville’s Union Station was headed towards Memphis. The eastbound train, No. 1, had been travelling from Memphis to Nashville.

The Crash[edit]

At the time, the No. 1 train had the right of way on the one-track travel lane into Nashville and should have forced the No. 4 train to wait on one of the multiple tracks just outside the station. However, the track operator had no record of the inbound train travelling from Memphis for that time of day1. The explanation was that the incoming train was running 35 minutes late.

With seemingly nothing to keep them back, the Memphis-bound train was given a green light to proceed, and accelerated out of the station, onto the single-lane track leaving the city. The operator hastily telegraphed the dispatcher to stop the train. With no direct communication to the Memphis-bound train, an emergency warning whistle was sounded. However, the train was out of earshot and kept up its pace into the turn of the track known as Dutchman’s Bend, or Dutchman’s Curve.

As both trains rounded their respective corners coming into the curve, the westbound train’s engineer spotted the Nashville-bound locomotive at the last moment and pulled the emergency brake. Unfortunately, with both engines moving at a top speed of 60 mph (100km/h), it was not enough. An enormous crash was heard, rocking the ground and splintering the wooden cars on the track.

The Aftermath[edit]

After clearing the rubble and mess, there were found to be 101 casualties and 171 injuries3. From these, the majority were travelling soldiers coming home from the fronts of the First World War. They also included many African American labourers from Tennessee and Arkansas who were leaving or returning to work at a munitions plant around Nashville. 5 crew members between both trains also perished.

The media was ridiculed after the disaster, accused of being overly dismissive of the crash. The disaster was front-page news for several days before eventually being forgotten. With World War I still being fought overseas, war stories were still the majority headline all across the United States. With this, the crash, as catastrophic as it was, was simply a sad distraction from the horrors of war being conducted in Europe. Since the majority of the dead were made of up minorities and labourers, with many bodies not able to be identified, the media dismissed the crash after several days. For example, Fair Play newspaper published in St. Genevieve, Missouri reports only 25 deaths and 40 injuries of the crash in their July 20, 1918 edition.

An investigation took place after the wreck, and the conclusion was that the crash came due to human error on behalf of the Memphis-bound train engineer, David Kennedy. A folded schedule was reported to be found under his body. It is debated whether or not Kennedy was aware of the other train, and whether or not he was attempting to reach the track switch at Harding Station, just a short ride west from the crash4. The other conductor, William Floyd was also killed, just one day before his retirement.

Education In Tennessee[edit]

Prior to the twentieth century, there was little belief in public education throughout the south. This was due to the widely held opinion that the poor did not need an education. There were two state-operated functioning schools systems, but both were inadequate and underfunded. The twentieth century brought about continued progress for the public school system in Tennessee. The Julius Rosenwald Fund, established by Rosenwald, a northern philanthropist, was established to aid in the construction of rural public schools for African American children. There was a lack of well-operated public schools in much of rural Tennessee, despite that the majority of the population lived in rural areas. African American children required separate schools, thus the accessibility and quality of their education suffered immensely. Black people struggled for decades, even centuries, to try and access education. Changes would begin in the late 1940s when African Americans would begin to fight for desegregation of the school system.

In 1907, an African American primary school in Franklin Tennessee burned down and a new one was built called the Franklin Coloured School. By 1911, there were 284 African American students who attended this school. Since this school was built for the black community, it was not built very well, with an unsteady structure that could not last long. Sixteen years had gone by before the Franklin Coloured School started deteriorating. When the kids and teachers who went to this school every day requested it be renovated, they got an addition instead, that was just as unsteady. This school always had absurd temperatures with little to no insolation and holes in the roof, walls, and floorboards. After a couple of decades, the Franklin Coloured School finally got replaced with a brick school that was much sturdier and is still standing.

Interracial Cooperation[edit]

In the early twentieth century, there were some individuals who tried advocating interracial cooperation. In 1918, a group called the Triangle of Peace was developed to instigate conversation between Caucasians and African Americans in Fisk University, Nashville. This group was created by the president of Fisk University, Fayette McKenzie. The Triangle of Peace vastly improved the connections between both communities. In fact, the group had such a significant impact on the University that it later created a Race Relations Institute to increase the awareness and continue the group’s legacy. Another example of individuals trying to decrease community racism was in 1932 when a school called Highlander Folk school was founded. The man who had the idea for this school was Myles Horton and he wanted to hire African American teachers. Horton believed that by hiring black employees, people may start to become more accepting of this race. He disagreed greatly with racism against African Americans and held meetings at the school to try and promote his cause. Horton had a major impact on Tennessee; however, since Tennessee is small, it did not go far out of the state.

Reform Schools[edit]

Boys reform schools were first implemented in 1911 within Tennessee. In 1932, white boys and black boys had a brief period of combined reformatories, where they were not separate. In 1934, they were divided again as racism was increasing and it was amongst the middle of the Jim Crow era. African American boys were treated very poorly, were required to do hard work in farming and mining, and they were also in extremely remote, rural areas where they were isolated from the rest of the world. The boys were treated especially poorly at The Training and Agricultural School for Coloured Boys. This reformatory school was located in Pikeville, Tennessee and was developed in the year 1918. Individuals were paid ten dollars if they brought back a black boy who had run away from the Agricultural School. This was a very good reward at the time.

The Scopes Trial[edit]

In mid-July 1925 in the town of Dayton, Tennessee, a teacher named John T. Scopes was put on trial for teaching his students about the theory of evolution and human progression. Ironically, the General Assembly of Tennessee had just recently passed a bill that had forbidden any form of teaching that “denies the story of Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.” This act was known as the Butler Act, named after the man who wrote it, John Washington Butler. The issue was such a controversial topic at the time that even The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) stepped in on the matter, stating that the Butler Act was against the constitution and denied Scopes his rights. As a result of this, Butler was offered representation by the ACLU against the statute.

Early Stages of The Scopes Case[edit]

When the Scopes case was first introduced in July 1925, the ACLU defense team consisted of big name lawyers that had years of experience in the field. Names such as Clarence Darrow, John Randolph Neal, Arthur Garfield Hays, and Dudley Field Malone were extremely successful lawyers within the state of Tennessee, and wanted to represent Scopes to the fullest, meaning that things were finally starting to look up for John. The ACLU had created a strategy to appeal the final verdict, incase the court decided against them in determining the constitutionality of the Butler Act. The Scopes trial held a high amount of significance, not just at state level, but nationally also. The issue was widespread, as it highlighted problems that were happening all over the country. It was something that had never been covered in a courtroom, which made it a landmark case, furthermore setting a precedent for all future cases of the same matter. Questions were raised in the courtroom such as whether the law was clear enough that it was forbidden to ‘teach’ evolution or not, and if the trial against Scopes was actually an attempt to better the education system. Although all of these were extremely good points in Scopes’ favour, these issues were still not paid any attention to during the trial, as Judge Raulston decided that there would not be allowed any testimony that involves any sort of scientific meaning or definition in regards to evolution and its coherence with the Bible. The case mainly concentrated on John’s encroachment of the act.

The Verdict[edit]

The case of John Scopes came to an intense climax on July 20th, when Darrow called a member of the prosecution team by the name of William Jennings Bryan to the stand. Bryan was known as a Bible expert, and was extremely knowledgeable on the teachings and content provided in the book. Even though this was irrelevant to the case, Bryan was open and wanted to defend his own views and traditional beliefs against atheism. After his time on the stand, the Great Commoner stated how he did not believe that every text and passage in the Bible was meant to be taken literally, leaving his supporters greatly disappointed with his points and arguments. When court resumed on July 21, the jury had reached a verdict that John T Scopes was guilty of spreading anti-Christian beliefs in the school system, which had a negative and damaging impact on society. Judge Raulston charged Scopes with a minimum fine of one hundred dollars.

Societal Changes Following The Case[edit]

Five days later, Bryan passed away from natural causes. Although he was gone, his anti-evolution movement was only getting started. Bryan’s death didn’t just create more publicity for his movement, but also demonstrated that ideas like his could win court cases, giving his followers further motivation. During the following years, brand new anti-evolution bills were passed amongst the United States, however the position on whether biology in the school curriculum was allowed was still unclear to many. The majority of educators and school boards generally tended to stray away from the topic human biology, creating changes in the curriculum and school material. It was so serious that it even led publishers to remove the topic from their own textbooks to avoid any legal trouble.

The Appeal[edit]

In January of 1927, the ACLU decided to go ahead with their initial plan and appeal Scope’s conviction to the Supreme Court. The court ultimately decided that Scope did not violate anything from the constitution and nothing could not be seen as an attempt to establish religion. The court ultimately reversed the conviction and overturned all fines owed by Scope.

For the next four decades, The Butler Act remained a part of the statute, until it was abolished in 1967. Although it was gone, the scars still remained in the state, as people were afraid to voice their opinions and beliefs. Teachers still felt restricted and stuck to the old curriculum. For years to come, Tennessee was infamously known to outsiders as the place where the Scopes Trial took place.

The Great Depression and Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA)[edit]

During the 1930s, many families lost everything, or almost everything, that they owned. At this time, there was an estimate of a third of Americans were out of employment. If an individual had a job, their working hours, as well as their pay, were significantly reduced. This was one of the worst periods of time that Americans had ever had to endure. In this financial depression, both the laboring people and the middle class were affected. In a small community in Tennessee River Valley, the effects of the depression did not have a major effect. This was due to the area already being impoverished. The Tennessee River Valley was dominantly a farming region; consisting of fifty-one percent farming families. Since the Valley was so poor, in 1933, the US Congress implemented the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). The TVA was to help the Valley control and use natural resources in the area. Between the TVA’s creation and the year 1941, there were seven dams built along the river in the area. This was a massive job and produced public attention across the country. The projects completed by the TVA showed the country and other countries that the government could control economic disadvantages and it gave hope to many people across the United States; especially since it was during the depression.