Thank you, Harry T. Burn
Ninety-eight years ago tomorrow, the deciding vote was cast in the Tennessee House of Representatives by Rep. Harry T. Burn of McMinn County.
At the time, the vote in the House of Representatives was deadlocked at 48-to-48,1 and Burn — just 24 years old2 — had expressed serious doubts about the issue that had come before the House for a vote. He’d initially taken a position against it.3
But then the moment came when Harry T. Burn changed his mind, cast his vote and broke the tie.
That one vote made Tennessee the 36th state to ratify the 19th amendment to the United States Constitution. And that was the magic number needed, in 1920, for the 19th amendment to pass — giving American women the right to vote.4
What changed young Harry T. Burn’s mind, or so the story goes, was a note he received. Dated the 17th of August 1920, it was a note both utterly mundane and utterly earthshaking.
It was a note from his mother.
“Dear Son,” it begins. “I wish you were home too. We have had nothing but rain since you left.”5 After more complaints about the rain, and talking about visitors, she changed the subject:
Hurrah and vote for Suffrage and don’t keep them in doubt. … I’ve been watching to see how you stood but have not seen anything yet.6
Then it’s back to routine matters. The sale of a house. Getting ready for a wedding. Someone being sick.
And then once more:
Don’t forget to be a good boy, and help Mrs. “Thomas Catt” with her “Rats.” Is she the one that put rat in ratification? Ha! No more from Mama this time. With lots of love.7
“Mama” was Phoebe (or Febbie) King (Ensminger) Burn. Born in Tennessee 23 November 1873,8 she married James Lafayette Burn the day after Christmas in 1894.9 Harry was the first of their four children.
And she was a remarkable woman in every way:
Phoebe, or Febb, … held a degree from U.S. Grant University, now Tennessee Wesleyan University, unusual for women of her day. … (H)er husband was stationmaster at Mouse Creek (Niota) for the East Tennessee, Virginia and Georgia Railway. He was founder of Crescent Hosiery Mill and associated with the Bank of Niota.
After her husband passed Febb ran the family farm, which she renamed to “Hathburn” … She was an important influence in all her children’s lives and passed away in 1945.
Febb served as a local school teacher, attended Niota Methodist Church, and was an avid reader. She read three newspapers each day, enjoyed magazines, novels and classic books and was a supporter of suffrage for many years, following those she called “the militants” and other leaders of the women’s movement.
She said she wrote the famous letter to her son while sitting on the porch of her Niota home.10
Burn was quoted later in life as saying that, in the end, he couldn’t vote against suffrage for women when his college-educated mother was denied the vote while illiterate tenant farmers in the district he represented could vote. So maybe it wasn’t the note from his mother that made the difference.
But he had it in his pocket when he voted.
Surely he listened to his mama.
Thank you, Harry T. Burn.
And a big thanks to you, Phoebe King Ensminger Burn. Even if the note itself didn’t make the difference, you did. You raised a good boy indeed.
Image: Envelope, Letter to Harry Burn from Mother, Knox County (Tenn.) Public Library.
- Mike Steely, “Niota, where one vote counts,” The Knoxville Focus, posted 9 Dec 2013 (http://knoxfocus.com/ : accessed 17 Aug 2018). ↩
- Delayed Certificate of Birth No. D-343860, Harry Thomas Burn, 12 Nov 1895; Tennessee Division of Vital Statistics, Nashville; digital images, “Tennessee, Delayed Birth Records, 1869-1909,” Ancestry.com (https://www.ancestry.com : accessed 17 Aug 2018). ↩
- Mike Steely, “The Woman Behind Women’s Right to Vote,” The Knoxville Focus, posted 17 June 2018 (http://knoxfocus.com/ : accessed 17 Aug 2018). ↩
- See “Women’s Suffrage: Tennessee and the Passage of the 19th Amendment,” Tennessee State Library and Archives (https://sos.tn.gov/products/tsla/ : accessed 17 Aug 2018). ↩
- Letter to Harry Burn from Mother, page 1; Digital Collection, Calvin M. McClung Historical Collection, Knox County Public Library (http://cmdc.knoxlib.org/cdm/ : accessed 17 Aug 2018). ↩
- Ibid., page 2. ↩
- Ibid., page 6. ↩
- Niota Cemetery, McMinn County, Tennessee, Febb Burn marker; digital image, Find A Grave (http://findagrave.com : accessed 17 Aug 2018). ↩
- McMinn County, Tennessee, Marriage Book 5: 121, Burn-Ensminger, 26 Dec 1894; County Clerk, Athens; digital images, “Tennessee, County Marriages, 1790-1950,” FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org : accessed 17 Aug 2018). ↩
- Steely, “The Woman Behind Women’s Right to Vote.” ↩